Thousands of Emiratis have been trained to work in retail as part of a programme to encourage young UAE citizens to learn new skills.
The scheme, called Yes2Work, which stands for Young Emiratis Start to Work, has been operating since 2013, offering experience in retail and operations.
Mubarak Al Shamsi is the director general of Abu Dhabi Centre for Technical and Vocational Education and Training (Actvet) which is behind the initiative.
He said many people doubted him when he first floated the idea.
“People thought I was out of my mind,” said Mr Al Shamsi, addressing the Youth Preparedness and Knowledge Economy Summit on Monday in Abu Dhabi.
"Many of them thought I could not get Emiratis to work in retail," he said.
However, he won the support of leaders to take the plan forward, and the scheme has become increasingly popular.
“We now have about 4,000 Emirati students who are certified in retail sales,” said Mr Al Shamsi.
“They could fit in any job in case we need them to work in co-ops, supermarkets, shopping malls etc.”
The Yes2Work programme, which runs during school breaks, is open to people aged between 15 and 21.
It has won the support of the Emirati community, said Mr Al Shamsi.
But there was a little reluctance among some members in the beginning.
Whereas parents and other students were supportive, challenges mostly came from members of the community who did not believe Emiratis should be working in retail, he said.
“They tried to discourage them from working in shopping malls, or at petrol stations.
“But we kept pushing. We kept encouraging them, with the support of their parents and employers. All the appreciation goes to them.”
The numbers on the programme started to increase, and the community got behind the project, he said. Now, more and more young Emiratis are joining Yes2Work.
The project was not designed to encourage or convince all Emiratis to work in the retail sector, but rather give them an insight into the operations, and equip them with the skills they would need for a future career, said Mr Al Shamsi.
This equips them with skills needed in leadership, customer service and communication.
“We want them to try to be on the other side of the table," he said.
“I want them to get the supply chain management ideas, on what to do from receiving the goods from the port to the stores, to the shop, to the shelf, to selling. And then to provide customers with the support they need after the sale.”
The programme continues to grow.
“A couple of years back, I introduced a new category in Yes2Work – baking."
People thought he had gone mad, said Mr Al Shamsi, especially when he explained he did not want the students selling the goods, but baking products themselves.
"They just have to learn how to deal with the machines. And now, we have the first Emirati girl who completed two years and she will be awarded a diploma in the retail baking category.
“And hopefully we will see her opening her new business soon.”
Hamad Al Mazrouei, managing director of ADGM Academy, which is running the forum that ends on Tuesday, said young people were among the most important drivers of any successful country.
“Each of us has a responsibility towards our youths. We have an important role to play in restructuring them as the future leaders of tomorrow,” said Mr Al Mazrouei.
UAE Minister of Education Hussain Al Hammadi, told the forum the country's youths had a “bright future”.
“There are so many things happening. There are so many initiatives taking place,” he said.
Mr Al Hammadi said young people should get a solid grounding in the basics, which would stand them in good stead in the future.
Skills like their native language Arabic, English and possibly even a third language, as well as maths, computers, physics and the world around them are critical, he said.
“These are important basic skills. If you have them and you have thorough knowledge you can really learn to move forward,” said the minister.