Skilled labour stigma 'hurts economy'

Many regard vocational training as the realm of underachievers, which is limiting jobs for young people in the Emirates, education official warns.

DUBAI //The stigma attached to vocational education restricts students and hurts the economy, said the head of the National Institute for Vocational Education (Nive). Dr Naji Almahdi criticised what he described as the "degree syndrome", where students best guided to pursue vocational and technical careers were not being encouraged towards their areas of strength. He said this was due to perceptions that a vocational route was for underachievers, truants and low-level workers.

However, not everyone was suited to the traditional higher education path and around 40 per cent of young Emiratis were suffering because of a lack of vocational opportunities, Dr Almahdi said. The market was flooded with students with degrees but no work skills, he added. "The skills and knowledge in education is only half of what they need," he said. "More fundamental is the attitude to work, the behaviour at work, soft skills such as timekeeping, teamwork."

Many students left school with few or no qualifications and few options but to continue in education or find work, he said. "We have a lot of young men and women at an age where they can be productive in industry but they didn't finish school," said Dr Almahdi. He believed that a push towards vocational courses could help to reduce unemployment. A study for the Emirates Foundation by the International Council on Security and Development found unemployment among Emiratis was around 12 per cent and may well be higher among youths.

When Nive was established by the Dubai government in 2006, it carried out a survey to assess the country's needs. "What we found was that the need for skilled people far outweighed the people being educated in Dubai," he said. "When industry wants specific workers in specific areas they are unable to source them. All the funding was going to higher education and feeding the degree syndrome." Sherry Farzami, project manager for education at the British Council, which is currently working on a global project called Skills for Employability aimed at addressing the problem, said: "One of the challenges that we face is that many people still see it [vocational education] as something that's for the students who aren't as strong. There's no opportunities for students to do apprenticeships."

She said companies need Emiratis to have soft skills such as teamwork, time management, analytical thinking, presentations skills and finance, but that this is still lacking, even when the students have a degree. "Even if you want to be an entrepreneur, you have to have these skills," she added. Mary Corrado, the UAE Director of AMIDEAST, which facilitates study in the US for students from all around the world, said that what is missing in the UAE is informed student counselling in high schools.

"What's needed with all the institutions is high school counselling, people who really understand the whole range of what people can do. For Emiratis, there is still a stigma attached to vocational education. It's like nursing. People from Abu Dhabi and Dubai don't want to go into it." She said aptitude testing is vital. "This requires working with schools and parents," she said. "It's important kids understand what they like. What you like is what you're successful in. This has to go along with schools they're trying to set up and run."

So far 600 full-time students, who come from as far afield as Ras al Khaimah and Ajman, have passed through Nive, with nearly all of them now in full-time jobs, according to Dr Almahdi. The students have qualified in areas such as accounting, IT and human resources. Ninety-two per cent of them have been sponsored by companies such as the Roads and Transport Authority and HSBC bank. The institute has trained a further 434 part-timers.

"We need them to see now that what we offer is career progression, not a dead end, like it has been in the past," said Dr Almahdi. The British Council's Skills for Employability project has teamed up UK colleges with UAE vocational institutes to enhance opportunities for Emiratis. They have facilitated a partnership between the Sharjah Institute of Technology and two UK colleges, Pembrokeshire and Coleg Gwent and are currently finalising a partnership for Nive in Dubai. They are discussing policy with the ministries to support development of the field.

The aim is to equip students with the skills for the workplace as well as strengthen the links between education and industry, and work alongside policy-makers. Nive uses the British system of Higher National Diplomas, and offers courses in jewellery business development, health and safety, IT, as well as diplomas in employability skills including retailing, customer service, banking and other courses such as typing (Arabic and English) and office skills.

Dr Almahdi says that once a national qualification framework for vocational education comes into play, it will fill a huge gap. "It will be of huge value to employers and workers and will finally give vocational education the recognition it deserves."