Why UAE expats want more from a skilled economy

The UAE will need to ensure a good quality of life for residents if it is to meet its goal of increasing the number of professional workers, says Courtney Trenwith
Balance Workers are demanding more than just a high wage to entice them to move for a new job.
By Courtney Trenwith
Sat 14 Jan 2017 01:16 AM

The UAE is upskilling its population - and not only nationals.

During a Federal National Council session on January 10, Minister of Human Resources and Emiratisation, Saqr Ghobash Saeed Ghobash, revealed the country is attempting to increase the number of “highly skilled” workers to 40 percent of the workforce by 2021.

Currently, workers categorised in the top three skill levels, including executives and those with tertiary qualifications, account for only 1 million of the total workforce of about 4.7 million. The other nearly 80 percent are considered to have limited skills or are unskilled.

The goal is perhaps a sign of a maturing country. The UAE, and other GCC states, grew rapidly with the hands of mostly those with limited skills. But now the attention is turning to a vast array of new sectors such as clean energy, education, health, technology, research and development, media, and others. Each of them require unique and often rare skills.

The government has already initiated laudable programs to encourage and assist Emiratis to gain the training the country needs for the future. Its clear and transparent vision also should ensure nationals obtain relevant skills.

But for such a relatively small country, the UAE will mostly rely on expats to fill the skills shortage for the foreseeable future, especially if it wants to reach the goal by 2021. That will require an entirely different strategy to that for nationals.

While the UAE outshines the rest of the GCC as the best place to live, it will be competing against dozens of other countries vying for the same skills. Thus it needs to make an attractive offer.

In today’s world, that no longer equals a high salary, the prospect of fat bonuses and perhaps free education for any children.

Employees are increasingly seeking a better work-life balance, whether that be the number of hours they perform or flexibility with where and when they work. It also extends to their lifestyle outside of work: how can they spend their spare time?

Dubai and Abu Dhabi in particular have worked to provide better outdoor activities and opportunities for sport and exercise, while the emirates’ cultural offerings are about to blossom following the opening of Dubai Opera and the imminent openings of Louvre Abu Dhabi and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.

The cost of living, however, is increasing across the country. Trefor Murphy, MENA managing director for recruitment consultancy Morgan McKinley, warned in June last year of an expat exodus due to the higher cost of living and lower job security.

In 2016, Mercer’s Cost of Living Survey ranked Dubai the 21st most expensive location out of 205 global cities, up from 23rd in 2015 and 67th in 2014. Abu Dhabi was ranked 25th, up from 33rd in 2015.

Dubai Statistics Centre shows housing and utility costs in Dubai rose 3.9 percent between 2015 and 2016, and food and drinks by 3.5 percent.

At the same time, employers are either unable or reluctant to fork out big contracts to lure new workers, given the uncertain economic environment.

Lifting the skills standard in the UAE will not be achieved purely through education and training. It will require attention to the after-hours offering. Money will need to be spent in both directions to reap the broader economic rewards.

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