The industry's skills shortage has prompted recruiters and retailers to respond with groundbreaking proposals.
As retail professionals warn of demand for staff exceeding supply, downplaying the potential impact on industry standards no longer appears to be an option.
In recent months, many of the region's major groups have stepped forward with training brainwaves to increase local recruitment, as the retail booms in many major source markets, particularly India, have witnessed many candidates opting to stay in or return to their home countries.
Employing Nationals is less costly, if expenses incurred on foreigners are taken into account.
Emiratisation has emerged as a priority for retail bosses in the UAE, as they strive to project an attractive image of working in the industry.
Famed for its pioneering approach, Dubai Outlet Mall has linked up with the city's Chamber of Commerce and Industry to teach 30 high school students about its business operations. Salem Khammas, executive director of Al Ahli Holding Group, which owns the mall, says its involvement would "help improve the Emiratisation process".
Arzah Al Sharhah, executive director of the Human Resources Department stresses that the Chamber's line-up of summer visits for students will have long-term benefits as they "introduce them to the real atmosphere of work and help them choose the type of jobs they plan to get in the future".
Dubai-based Tanmia, the National Human Resource Development and Employment Authority recently secured jobs for 41 UAE Nationals, who had completed the Bridge 2 Work diploma, at Al Rostamani Group and the Al Gurg Group.
The 20-week course comprises classroom and on-the-job training, with the first six weeks of study resulting in the BTEC Business and Technology Education Council-accredited diploma in Skills for Employment.
In the second phase of six weeks duration, students select between the BTEC Intermediate Diploma in Customer Services, Business Administration or Retailing, followed by an eight-week placement.
"The retail industry now is more attractive to Nationals because the work environment has changed significantly and the growth opportunities in this sector have augmented," according to Ahmad Al Ahmadi, manager, Tanmia.
In its bid to reduce the reliance on expatriate workers in the total workforce and constantly improve labour productivity to improve competitiveness, Tanmia provides services in training, career guidance and employment, by "coordinating with several leading retail groups and department stores in the UAE that are mainly involved with the sale of clothing, jewellery, automobiles and electronics."
More and more nationals are now keen to explore job opportunities in the retail business, he says, as "initially it was a challenge to encourage Nationals to enter this sector".
Focused training serves as an important confidence and performance booster among UAE nationals, Al Ahmadi confides, particularly in sales and customer service roles, and this "will in turn encourage other Nationals to enter the retail sector".
Trained candidates are highly sought-after by employers as they can immediately assume job responsibilities, he says. When asked how Tanmia has encouraged companies to take on Nationals rather than source employees from other countries, he responds: "Employing Nationals is less costly to employers, if they take into account all of the expenses incurred on foreigners." "Moreover, Emirati customers prefer to deal with Nationals rather than foreigners and this is also a factor that is encouraging companies in the retail sector to hire more Nationals," he adds.
Remuneration remains an essential part of the recruitment process for skilled staff, according to Prakash Chugani, general manager, HR Outsourcing, Dulsco.
Considered one of the UAE's most prominent experts in staffing solutions for more than seven decades, Dubai's Dulsco HR Solutions offers outsourcing, recruitment and manpower services.
Retailers are under pressure to up salaries or provide accommodation so that staff can save every month, Chugani says, in order to "have the right people in place. Stores need qualified, trained staff in areas such as merchandising because of the competition out there now; brands are fighting for space and visibility."
From its 5000-strong pool of manpower, the ISO 9001-certified company delivers contractual staffing needs, from recruitment and visa requirements to repatriation and accommodation to its vast clientele in the UAE and Qatar.
Retail is a "very critical" area of business for Dulsco and its clients are typically principals and distributors seeking sales personnel and visual merchandisers.
After nine years with the company, Chugani admits that Dulsco's manageability credentials have positioned it as a reliable partner for retailers, "no matter how many people they're looking for", in the face of strong competition and a constantly expanding industry.
"Almost all of the consumer electronic brands have merchandisers outsourced through us and we have worked with big names including LG, Redington, Panasonic, Acer and Samsung," he comments.
The company has recruited predominantly from the Asian Subcontinent countries, such as Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and the Philippines, yet it is now looking into new source markets.
"We are trying to move into new markets including the Eastern European countries, where recruits boast strong communication skills and sales backgrounds. We are exploring Bulgaria, Romania, some parts of Russia, as well as Tunisia."
The industry faces a dearth of qualified, trained staff with customer-oriented skills, Chugani concedes, and a level of compromise has been forced upon recruiters and employers.
"We get these candidates onboard but we know that we need to spend time and energy on training them in soft skills and we ensure they meet the high standards of our in-house trainers," he says.
To cope with the widening skills gap and monitor the success of training new hires, Chugani also urges stores to work with mystery shopping firms to check how employees are treating customers and their response times.
Firms are tightening costs with smaller salary hikes, yet they should be keeping pace with the market's increasing costs, according to Chugani. Salaries have risen in the past 18 months by at least 50%, alongside soaring rents, he says.
"Staff retention calls for retailers to find ways to innovate and avoid replacement costs, as if they have satisfied employees there is less of a threat," he advises.
Employees should be continually motivated under the right supervision, and "he or she is a very nice person that they can really relate to".
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