Work experience is crucial for students

Emirati students need more opportunities to learn about the advantages of a career in the private sector.

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Public sector, or a private company? It's a simple question, and for many young-adult Emiratis the answer, too, is simple. Sometimes too simple.

The subject was a prime topic yesterday at Zayed University's second annual Youth Forum, where 600 young Emiratis spent the day in contact with top Emirati business leaders.

The young people, university students 17 to 24 years old, are on the cusp of career decisions. The forum is an effort to get them interested in trying business, instead of making civil-service jobs their default option.

The UAE's Emiratisation programme aims to put more citizens into posts at all levels in private business and government-related enterprises. This policy goal is made doubly urgent by the reality that with a growing Emirati population, government cannot find niches for all.

But making this work requires the breaking of some stereotypes in graduates' minds. Higher pay, better benefits and working conditions and the comfort of cultural conformity all add lustre to government work. Figures from 2010 show that Emiratis held 52 per cent of government jobs but only 4 per cent of private-sector posts.

Events such as yesterday's are a worthwhile start at getting young job-seekers to think outside the cubicle. One career adviser said students pushed unwillingly into work-study assignments in the private sector often come back from them enthusiastic.

Perhaps that's because they discover that the private sector does have advantages. In a globalised world, a corporate career can offer travel, overseas postings, and even job offers from rival firms elsewhere, benefits rarely seen in the government sector. Similarly, as global companies strive to spread their best practices, jobs with them offer a chance to learn fast, from the world's best, in real-life settings, with the discipline of profit and loss to keep everyone focused. And while starting pay may be lower, senior executives can earn much more than senior bureaucrats.

Also, most people change employers at least once before retirement, and private-sector skills are generally more in demand than public-sector experience, making business a sound place to start a career.

The challenge, for the champions of Emiratisation, is to get these points and others across to students. Events like the youth forum are a good start, but there is much more to be done.