Soft skills smooth Emiratis’ path from school to work

On-the-job training can help young Emiratis stay the course in private sector jobs, says UAE entrepreneur Omaira Farooq Al Olama

Asocial enterprise aims to help UAE youth make the leap from classroom to workplace by using on-the-job training to plug the soft skills gap in the country’s education system.

Advance Learning Formulas Administration (ALF) – an all-Emirati firm – trains youth in attributes such as work ethic and accountability, which its founder says are missing from UAE classrooms.

Such skills are vital for young Emiratis, and to pare back the high attrition rates that see many UAE nationals leave private sector roles in the first few years, said Omaira Farooq Al Olama, ALF Administration’s founder. 

“We need to introduce creativity, critical thinking and the concept of choice into the education system,” she said. “[UAE youth] don’t have such a strong work ethic as in western countries, because previously there was no environment in which they could get a summer job to learn these skills. Internships are a recent phenomenon, for example.”

Joblessness among Emiratis aged 15 to 24 stood at 10 per cent in 2014, according to World Bank data. While the figure is not as high as in some other GCC countries, such as Saudi Arabia, the rate is still troubling as the region grapples with low oil prices and slowing public spending. Young UAE nationals have a “strong preference” for public sector jobs, according to the Emirates Foundation, a UAE nonprofit. A study published in 2015 by Oxford Strategic Consulting, a think tank, found 54 per cent of UAE nationals polled wanted to work in the public sector.

“We’re not afraid to tell Emiratis they are not ready for work. But we will train them to get there”Set up six years ago, ALF Administration, which Al Olama established with her father, has a suite of courses to bring Emiratis between 18 and 35-years-old up to scratch. There is an emphasis on the basics of professional conduct – punctuality and working across cultures – through to shouldering more responsibility. The courses are taught in the workplace in English and Arabic.

“We’re not afraid to tell Emiratis they are not ready for work. But we will train them and work with them to get the position they deserve,” she said.

At Emirates NBD, a Dubai-based bank, ALF has helped lower attrition rates among young Emirates from 55 per cent after three years, to between 10 and 15 per cent.

The company coaches 800 UAE nationals at the bank each year.

ALF draws on storytelling and role-playing to get its message, and skills training, across. Such interactive sessions are departure from the rote learning system typically employed that fails to engage Emirati youth, argued Al Olama.

“With Arabic culture, young people get bored and lose interest in PowerPoint presentations,” she said. “It has to be stories. We do role-playing, encourage them to stand up and talk, and provide feedback.

“We teach them how to adapt and think critically and help build them up to the authority figures they should be in five to 10 years’ time.”

An important aspect is training the employer, too, according to Al Olama. This includes helping firms set realistic milestones and timeframes in which young people can expect to get promoted. Career development is vital to keep young Emiratis motivated, said Al Olama. She is critical of semi-governmental and private sector companies who hire young Emiratis to fulfil local work quotas without investing in the young person: “That’s the biggest mistake. Don’t put them in jobs they are not ready for.”

So far the company has trained young nationals in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait. Employers, not the beneficiaries, pay for the courses. ALF hopes to develop franchises of its model in the region, which will be finalised in 2017 and 2018.

Some of the effects of the coaching can be startling, according to Al Olama. “We had one national who, when we first met him, couldn’t even look us in the eye when he was giving a presentation,” she said. “Now he owns three restaurants in the UAE, he does TedX talks and he wants to franchise his business in the region.”

The ultimate goal is to encourage change in the education system itself, says Al Olama. “By introducing skills [such as critical thinking] in school, young people will be able to bridge the gap between school and work themselves. We won’t need to exist anymore.”