Swaying young ambitions in the Middle East

Written by
Changeboard Team

03 Jul 2014

03 Jul 2014 • by Changeboard Team

Future talent crisis

Rising living costs and unemployment are the biggest worries for young people in the Middle East, according to the results of the sixth annual Arab Youth Survey. Throughout 2013, ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller interviewed 3,500 18-24 year-olds across 16 countries, finding that 49% are ‘concerned’ about unemployment, up from 42% in 2011 and 44% in 2012 and 2013. 

For Sangeeth Ibrahim, assistant vice-president and head of learning and development at Sharjah Islamic Bank, high levels of joblessness across the region might mean it is heading for a future talent crisis. “Though hundreds of thousands of new jobs are created in the UAE year after year, a considerable percentage of UAE national youth remain unemployed,” he says. Interestingly, the survey also revealed that concern about unemployment is highest in non-GCC countries, where governments are struggling to provide jobs for their growing populations. Here, 55% of young people say it is their greatest angst, compared with 39% in the Gulf, where perhaps oil-rich governments provide some reassurance. Egyptian youth are most concerned about unemployment, with 62% naming it their top source of unease, followed by Algeria (59%), Jordan (56%), Iraq, Tunisia and Libya (each 55%) and Lebanon (54%). Syria was omitted from the survey due to the current civil unrest in the country. 


Public v private sector

Ibrahim puts the general problems associated with unemployment down to what he terms nationals’ ‘clear preference’ of government organisations, which tend to offer better wages, working hours and other benefits. As a result, he believes that private companies are struggling to source UAE nationals that fit their needs. He argues that this is further aggravated by the mismatch between the salary aspirations of nationals and the manpower budgets of private organisations. He adds: “As the [UAE’s] vision is to have ‘global workforces and global companies led by local talent’, much has to be done to ensure talented nationals are available to meet the sourcing requirements of private organisations. If this is not done proactively, it could lead to a talent crisis.”

However, Ibrahim is hopeful that the government’s interventions to support the private sector will spare no efforts to avoid such a situation. He also believes many private organisations prefer hiring experienced expats over young UAE nationals, leaving locals at a disadvantage in this area.

Building employability among nationals

The employability of local graduates is an issue Ibrahim is keen to highlight. When it comes to upskilling young people to be ready for work, he acknowledges there is a universal problem. “Universities teach skills in an academic context, not a workplace context,” he says. “Hence private organisations find they have to provide intensive and extended training to fresh graduates.”

To bridge this gap, Ibrahim suggests colleges and universities offer courses in line with the jobs available in the region. “Tourism, construction, services, retail and hospitality are leading growth and development in the UAE. Universities must help prepare young people to gain competence in these streams,” he says.

He believes private sector companies must work closely with universities to constantly give inputs about the competencies they expect from new graduates. “Job aspirants must be made aware of the challenges of working in the private sector,” he adds. “They must be urged to proactively seek ways to upgrade their skills.”

Increased engagement levels

Yet despite the perceived attractiveness of working in the public sector, HR consultancy Aon Hewitt says, privately employed GCC nationals report higher levels of engagement (45%) than those in the public sector (37%).

Risk of attrition rises from 20% for GCC nationals in the private sector to 24% in the public sector (and 14% to 30% in the UAE). “This is particularly interesting to governments trying to encourage their people to look for work opportunities with private organisations trying to recruit local talent,” comments Markus Wiesner, CEO of Aon Hewitt Middle East. “While the public sector may be more attractive to nationals, the private sector is providing greater job satisfaction and is more likely to retain that talent pool.” Aon Hewitt’s research also reports that those in private organisations are benefiting from an enhanced workplace experience. For example, Emiratis working in the private sector report significantly higher satisfaction levels (59%) than those in the public sector (36%) when it comes to learning and development opportunities, confidence in leadership (48% and 36%) and recognition within the organisation (67% and 49%).

Investing in national talent SIB academy

At Sharjah Islamic Bank, Ibrahim runs and champions SIB Academy for young national employees. Through the academy, SIB aims to realise its commitment towards upgrading the competencies of the community, specifically in the UAE.

“We conduct the Visions2Reality conference annually to showcase the talents of young UAE nationals to the private sector,” he explains. “Job aspirants get to perform in front of an invited audience consisting of the ‘who’s who’ of organisations.”

The bank has also launched the Sharjah Islamic centre for studies and research in Islamic finance at Sharjah University to prepare young people to take leadership positions in the Islamic banking domain. Ibrahim continues: “We regularly give talks at all the universities on Islamic banking and its various job functions. We ensure that subject matter experts from these domains are available to highlight the challenges faced by employees in these areas and the critical skills they need to succeed.”

Within the bank itself, a realistic job preview is provided when interviewing nationals. Existing staff from different departments then interact with the candidate to provide a pragmatic view of the role. 

Candidates are also invited to seminars that explain the processes and result areas of each business function. Once employed, ‘mystery shoppers’ are enrolled and regular feedback is taken from new recruits and their managers to address skills gaps and concerns.

Next on the agenda is a plan to conduct sessions for university lecturers, to make them aware of the expectations of the private sector and ways to equip their students better, reveals Ibrahim.

Improving private sector perception

Many private sector organisations, supported by governments, are ramping up their efforts to engage with
national youth. This is starting to yield return.

Regional governments have developed programmes aimed at encouraging more citizens to enter the private sector. For example, in 2011 Saudi Arabia launched the Nitaqat system, and the UAE has introduced Absher – an initiative to help more nationals into work.

Perhaps as a result, more young people appear to favour private sector jobs. The Arab Youth Survey found that 31% of respondents would like to work for a private company, up from 26% in 2013 and 28% in 2012. Although government is still the preferred employer for many, 43% of all young Arabs favour the public sector, down from 46% in 2013 and 55% in 2012.

Entrepreneurial spirit was also shown to be much higher this year, with more than two thirds (67%) of young people agreeing their generation is more likely to start businesses than previous generations. This could signal a rise in confidence and aspiration which must be harnessed to ensure future prosperity. Increased funding from governments and banks for young people to start private companies is going some way to do this.

Looking ahead

Wiesner believes that in coming years there will be more focus on the education sector to provide work readiness, manage expectations and influence career choices. He also anticipates more organisations taking a strategic approach to realising their vision for nationalisation.

For Wiesner, companies must emphasise the meaningful experiences they can offer locals, reinforcing the intellectual challenges available and opportunities to prove themselves. “Given the drive to ensure nationals are taking on more of these roles, many private sector organisations are prepared to invest heavily in providing growth and development opportunities for nationals,” he says. “Those who choose to follow that path may well find it a more enriching experience.”

Retaining national talent

Sangeeth Ibrahim’s research ‘Determinants of the retention of UAE nationals in the banking sector’ identified key elements in keeping nationals:

  • Career development & need-based training programmes for nationals
  • Clear information about performance expectations & regular performance feedback
  • Coaching to address performance gaps
  • Respect for cultural & religious values of nationals
  • Regular feedback from nationals & making their concerns an organisational priority
  • Steps to integrate nationals with the organisational mainstream
  • Linking retention to managers’ KPIs
  • Conducting detailed exit interviews that unearth real reasons for leaving
  • Regularly communicating turnover targets & actual figures to senior management.

For more information about the ASDA’A Burson Marstellar Arab Youth Survey 2014, please visit: http://arabyouthsurvey.com/

Sangeeth Ibrahim

SANGEETH IBRAHIMassistant vice-president and head of learning & development, SIB

Sangeeth leads the learning & development interventions at Sharjah Islamic Bank. He also heads the business excellence team.

Markus Wiesner

MARKUS WIESNERCEO, Aon Hewitt - Middle East

Markus joined Aon Hewitt as CEO MENA in 2011. Previously he was managing director for the Middle East at Mercer consulting.