Why so few Emirati engineers?

With tough qualifications and slow career progression it is, perhaps, understandable that many nationals turn their back on technology and opt for the public-sector.

Sharjah - September 30, 2009 - Crescent Petroleum crew members arriving from the tanker Mubaraka where they stay during their off work time, are lifted to the platform during a shift change at the company's platform in their Mubarek field off the coast of Sharjah, September 30, 2009. (Photo by Jeff Topping/ The National ) *** Local Caption ***  JT021-0930-CRESCENT PETROLEUM_MG_3367.jpg
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Professor Michael Ohadi has one word to describe the opportunities available to Emirati nationals in his industry and engineering in general: "boundless". As the provost and acting head of the Petroleum Institute in Abu Dhabi, he estimates that over the next five years roughly half of all those people employed in the UAE's energy sector, mainly expatriates, will retire. That will leave a vacuum of interesting and well-paid roles to be filled.

It has been more than 35 years since oil was first exported from Abu Dhabi. The Petroleum Institute, a higher-education institution that trains students in the fields of engineering and science, had believed that when the pioneers who tapped the nation's great resources left, they would be gradually replaced by local talent. "But we're not finding the people," says Prof Ohadi. "We have 50 per cent of the workforce retiring in the next five years in the oil and gas industry. Today we have about 10 to 15 per cent of positions that we cannot fill because of a shortage of the right skills."

According to the institute, part of the problem is that fewer than a quarter of Emirati nationals in higher education are studying science and technology, while a majority - 64 per cent - are opting for business school. This is "an imbalance. We don't need that many business majors," says Prof Ohadi. It is not only the oil and gas sectors that face this challenge. Policymakers, employers and educational institutions are grappling with how to stimulate interest among Emiratis in careers in engineering. Of particular concern are the manpower demands of industries including transport, construction, aviation and, more recently, the country's embryonic nuclear power sector.

Dr Naji al Mahdi is the executive director of the National Institute for Vocational Education, an initiative of the Knowledge and Human Development Authority in Dubai. He says a shortage of nationals who have studied an engineering discipline is not the real problem. He believes many are put off after graduating by the profession's demanding and ongoing qualification requirements and slow career progression.

"Let's say you become an aircraft technician," he says. "To move up the ladder, you need to go through courses on types of aeroplanes, certain models. You can't just work on something without a proper licence, certification. If you want to be an engineer, you also must be a part of a number of professional organisations, like the American Society of Mechanical Engineers." Throw into the mix a "near-infinite pool" of foreign engineers with more experience and lower salary expectation, says Dr al Mahdi, and Emirati engineers tend to leave the profession altogether.

Sectors where qualification requirements are less rigorous, and promotion is easier to come by - such as finance or banking - have proved more popular with Emiratis, he says. "The engineering path is full of barriers." However, various national organisations, aided by an array of generously funded initiatives, are determined to break this trend. One example is the Petroleum Institute, founded in 2000 by the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company and a consortium of other international oil and gas firms. Operating an American curriculum, it has grown into one of the country's largest educators of Emiratis in the fields of engineering and science. Roughly 70 per cent of its 1,200 students are nationals, working towards a bachelor of science degree in engineering, or a master's in science or engineering.

One attraction for many students - foreigners and nationals - is the low cost. Full scholarships cover everything from course fees and books to housing and transport. But nationals are also encouraged by lower admission requirements; where foreign students have to score in the top 94 per cent in their high-school exams, for nationals the cut-off point is 80 per cent. But, in terms of cultivating home-grown talent, perhaps the institute's best weapon is its foundation course, available only to Emiratis. It is designed to address deficiencies in English, maths and science among students who are often making the transition to the English-language curriculum from Arabic-language government schools.

It has, says Prof Ohadi, yielded significant improvements that also seem to have echoed back into the feeder schools: "What has been really astonishing and pleasing is that the trends have been swiftly changing, to the extent that we don't allow more than one year on the foundation [course] any more." Another promising trend is the rising number of female Emirati students, who now account for 85 per cent of the total number of female students at the institute. They are, he adds, "actually doing better than the men when it comes to academics. They just take it more seriously."

This gender dynamic is the envy of other like-minded initiatives, such as the UAE Nuclear Energy Scholarship Programme run by the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (Enec), which is designed to develop a national workforce for the country's nascent nuclear energy sector. In its inaugural year, the programme has sent its first batch of 25 Emiratis to study nuclear, chemical and electrical engineering at universities in Britain, France and the US, but only four of the students are women.

This, says Khaled al Hammadi, a human-resources officer at Enec, who provides support for Emirati students at such institutions as Georgia Tech and the University of Texas, is partly due to cultural imperatives. "Females tend not to go into engineering," he says. "Fields like medicine, education are popular, and it might be difficult for them to travel alone in the US." Soon, that barrier may be removed by the planned introduction of an Enec-sponsored nuclear engineering programme at the UAE's Khalifa University of Science Technology and Research. However, for all those who complete its scholarship programmes, Enec has big plans. Its graduates, who will be obliged to work for the organisation for a certain period of time, will be given the job of operating the country's nascent civil nuclear engineering industry.

"It's all part of a plan to build our capacity to make sure that we will be able to run the plants with Emiratis in the future," says Mr al Hammadi. The ambitious goal is not only to have a majority of Emiratis manning the plant but also working for the nuclear regulator, the Federal Authority of Nuclear Regulation, and at the university as members of the faculty. It is, he acknowledges, a tall order: at the moment he knows of only two fully-fledged Emirati nuclear engineers.

Other organisations, recognising that government-sponsored initiatives offer the best hope of developing a future talent pool of national engineers, are following similar models. Among them is the Abu Dhabi Government's newly founded Masdar Institute of Science and Technology. Also in its first year, the graduate-level university is training 88 foreign nationals and Emiratis in subjects including engineering systems and management, materials science and engineering, and water and environmental engineering.

The enhanced support offered by such institutions to nationals is vital, says Dr al Mahdi. "If there is any approach that has shown success, it's been this state incubation, where you show people it's a viable profession, one where you can grow and where you have role models for you to see as you go along." Without it, he says, fierce competition from cheaper and, frequently, more experienced foreign nationals plus generous state subsidies for nationals and relatively high salary expectations would continue to act as disincentives for Emiratis, either to enter the private sector or to embrace the skills the nation so badly needs.

It is, says Mohammed Lahouel, associate dean for academic affairs at the Dubai School of Government, a "paradox: on the one hand practising a national policy of economic openness to goods, services and labour; and at the same time imposing constraints on hiring here concerning the local labour. The Emiratisation quotas, the salaries, they essentially have to give nationals a premium over foreign labour, and that has held back firms from hiring locals."

Although well-intentioned, Emiratisation, combined with generous government subsidies, including housing allowances and cheap utility costs, has in effect deprived the private sector of an Emirati workforce: "They don't really feel they are under pressure to get ready to be hired by the private sector," says Prof Lahouel. The construction industry, until recently enjoying an unprecedented decade-long boom, is a classic example of this tendency. Until recently, says Abdullah al Ghufili, a government liaison officer with Arabtec Construction, a private Dubai-based building firm with 28,000 employees, finding nationals to fill engineering jobs was all but impossible. "There was no local interest in the construction field."

Part of the problem has been the "strong competition from banking and finance. They have government mandates that say locals have to make up a percentage of banking firms. We don't have that in construction." The good news is that interest in the company among nationals has recently increased, says Mr Ghufili, thanks in part to government employment schemes, such as Tanmia, and job-placement programmes with local universities.

"We have the priority always for the local students who are graduating in engineering," he says. "Things are changing for the better." @Email:hnaylor@thenational.ae