Skys the limit: Etihads Emiratisation journey

Written by
Changeboard Team

25 Aug 2017

25 Aug 2017 • by Changeboard Team

For Wissam Hachem, vicepresident of learning at Etihad Airways, “we live in a region and work in an industry which are both renowned for their superlatives.” Yet Etihad can boast that it has secured its position as one of the world’s fastestgrowing airlines, with an extremely diverse workforce, representing more than 144 nationalities.

Along with its commitment to expanding its global workforce, Etihad also has the highest and fastest-growing rates of nationalisation among its regional peers and leading employers in other sectors.

This is despite the fact that aviation is fairly new to the region and typically not seen as one of the most attractive industries for Emirati nationals. In addition, Abu Dhabi is recognised as one of the tightest labour markets in the GCC.

As the national carrier of the UAE, Etihad’s commitment to Emiratisation and its achievements have been a result of a people strategy driven from the top, from its shareholders, the board and the C-Suite.

The organisation says it has changed the conversation on the topic of nationalisation from being the ‘right’ thing to do, to the ‘smart’ thing to do. UAE national development is regarded as a business imperative at Etihad, supporting the organisation’s growth trajectory in the future, both in terms of capacity and capability.

The organisation has dedicated its efforts to supporting exponential growth in its Emirati talent since 2007, and has witnessed a 30% year-on-year increase in headcount to date.

By 2020, 43% of the total workforce will be Emirati, underpinning the airline’s operations throughout the world. For Hachem, this is an extremely positive growth story. “The opportunities and potential are tremendous. Our rates of growth imply that we can offer exciting careers for both Emirati nationals and expatriates based upon their performance and potential,” he says. “We’ve worked hard to create an organisational culture
and corporate values that everybody can belong to.”

As an internationally regulated industry with the highest quality of safety and service standards, and 24/7, 365 days-a-year operations, Etihad cannot compromise on performance expectations. “We are an extremely meritocratic culture. Our senior leadership and guests expect the best without fail. Everybody working for Etihad understands this,” he adds.

“There is no ‘one’ secret formula to the success we have achieved with our UAE national development strategy. It has required us to focus equally on our attraction and hiring policies, as well as how we develop, engage and retain our talent, challenging the status quo and going out of our way to create programmes and policies that would support our vision of being a top-ofmind employer for everyone, including Emirati nationals.”

UAE nationals are now the first or second nationality group among most of the company’s key demographics. It’s the numberone nationality group in terms of total UAEbased headcount, at executive and management level, as well as within its pilots and technical engineering communities. This is no easy task, considering the typical challenges associated with hiring talent into a non-conventional sector, in a very competitive local labour market. The question is, how was this dramatic growth in UAE national development achieved? And how will it be sustained?

Fatma Al Ali, head of UAE national development, explains that Etihad takes an integrated approach, treating business leaders and line managers as partners in performance. Unusually, that does not include a dedicated “nationalisation department” for Etihad as such, as compared with most other organisations.

“We strongly believe that nationalisation is everybody’s responsibility, our business, line managers and HR more broadly – my key accountability is to ensure we coordinate our efforts to promote the sustainable performance and productivity of our UAE national staff and achieve objectives,” she says.

She is keen to stress that this relationship works in the opposite direction too. “As the growth and success of the airline continues, the attractiveness of Etihad to national talent is also positively impacted. We found that the sense of pride in working for Etihad was a significant driver of engagement for our national employees. We like to get behind the headlines to understand what drives and motivates our Emirati talent.”

With an employee engagement score of 77%, Etihad Airways’ UAE national employees have rated the organisation:

  • Within 3% of best employers globally
  • 19% ahead of the global benchmark
  • 23% ahead of the UAE national engagement average.

Its younger Emiratis, on graduate programmes, have an engagement score of 88%.

“The analysis of our employee engagement figures and attrition risk statistics means that we are not just focused on filling the bucket while the bucket is leaking,” explains Al Ali. “Recruitment and development efforts go hand-in-hand. Our turnover rates for UAE nationals are around 11%, approximately half of which are ‘desired’ leavers, driven mainly by poor performance.”

Over the past six years, Etihad has invested in creating 22 distinct programmes to build aviation capacity and bring awareness of the industry in the UAE and across the region. These span management, entry-level, technical and pilots.

Cadet pilot programme

For example, a cadet pilot programme has been created, which blends academic education with vocational training. “Partnering with local academic education providers, we co-developed a programme where our cadet pilots graduate not only with a pilot licence, but also a bachelor’s degree in aviation science,” says Hachem. “This is one example of how we invest in creating sustainable programmes that provide the best possible outcomes for our younger generation.”

Management programmes

There are also more than 350 graduates in Etihad’s management programmes, where there is a choice of more than 14 specialisations, including sales, airport operations, HR, IT, finance, procurement, audit, and more.Most of these programmes are between two to three years in duration and lead to supported yet accelerated development into managerial positions, where they work closely with the business and also get rotated to out-station locations for six months to a year, as part of core training. To support exposure to its global operations, Etihad currently has more than 170 graduates posted across its international locations including New York, Tokyo and Australia.

Khalid Al Mehairi, a second officer at Etihad Airways, says: “Etihad has helped hone my professional skills. Through the cadet pilot programme, I was able to enhance my decisionmaking skills and acquired the tools to help me progress. I also learned to respect and appreciate the aviation industry. Flying has always been my ambition. However, I also discovered that it’s a fully functioning industry and to be fully entrenched in it is an ongoing learning process that I have embarked on with Etihad.”

Empowering female talent

The airline has also has set up a dedicated contact centre in Al Ain, which is 100% staffed by Emirati females. The facility has experienced 140% growth with more than 170 females employed currently, and it services guests from the UAE and Gulf region in Arabic and English.

“We decided to move to where there was an untapped source of talent, and a compelling opportunity to support the development of the community as a whole,” says Al Ali. “Instead of expecting our female employees to commute from Al Ain to Abu Dhabi every day, we decided to shift our operations and enable a closer integration for our employees between their work and personal family commitments.”

Aysha Al Kaabi, revenue management graduate manager, says: “I’m a demand manager in revenue management. This is the last phase on my rotation within the revenue management department. I’m looking after 14 of the routes operated by Etihad Airways and my role is to forecast demand for these routes. I’ve had the opportunity to learn a lot in the past year. The programme is designed to give us hands-on experience in almost every dimension of the department. I feel confident and see myself in a management role in the near term.”

The centre was awarded ‘Best Contact Centre Facility’ at the Insights 2012 & 2013 Middle East Awards and the ‘Best Large Contact Centre’ at the Insights 2014 Middle East Awards. It was also crowned the ‘Best Industry Call Centre (Airline)’ and ‘Best Career and Skills’ for its team leader programme at the Insights Middle East Call Centre Awards 2015.

To further this commitment, Etihad also recently announced it was setting up the Revenue Accounting Centre of Excellence in Al Ain, creating an additional 1,000 jobs for Emirati females over the next two years.

Hachem confesses that the journey isn’t easy and it is important to learn from mistakes. He says: “Over the years, we have changed our approach based on our experience of what worked and what didn’t in the past.”

The key is to be honest, pro-active and open to taking the road less travelled. “One success is our People Advisory Board, made up of the most senior Emiratis across the airline. They meet regularly to share what’s happening in their part of the business and act as another communication and support channel for UAE nationals, sometimes intervening when we feel that there is a risk of unwanted attrition,” he adds.

Etihad also changed its approach to recruiting UAE nationals on its graduate programmes; Hachem points out that there was a realisation that the aims were so ambitious that the older, more traditional approaches simply were no longer scalable.

He continues: “We discovered that due to our strong brand, young Emiratis often know they want to work with
Etihad. However, they lack the selfawareness to choose which programme or management track may be the best at
the time of recruitment. Consequently, we used to have a lot of people wanting to jump between our graduate programmes once they joined, which wasn’t ideal.

“We partnered with The Talent Enterprise and reviewed our current approaches using talent analytics and decided to flip the model, to launch an innovative approach to accelerate UAE national talent attraction and development.”

Hachem explains that the traditional process was complex, and included rigorous psychometric testing and
assessment centres, with frustrated candidates waiting for a long time to progress – which resulted in lower success rates than were aimed for. The new model, launched in November 2014, transforms a conventional ‘assessment centre’ into a ‘discovery centre’.

“This involves a flipped assessment and flipped development model,” says Hachem. “The key elements essentially
allow our graduates to undergo a process of self-selection, self-awareness, structured career guidance and development based on their unique strengths and aspirations.”

Hachem is clear that rather than being called HR, his team at Etihad are called ‘people and performance’ as this is a more accurate description of their commitment to the business. “We believe in challenging the status quo, connecting people with their passion and thinking differently to find new ways of doing business,” he concludes.

Saada Al Taai, manager, revenue accounting, GBSS, Al Ain, says: “The best part of working at Etihad is being part of such a multi-cultural team, all working together with the commitment to achieve its vision to be the best airline in the world.”

About the interviewees

David Jones (left), managing director, The Talent Enterprise
David advises policymakers, business leaders and HR professionals on strategic human capital issues. 

Wissam Hachem (centre), Etihad Airways
Wissam is vice president of learning & development.

Fatma Al Ali (right), Etihad Airways
Fatma is head of UAE national development.