Shrinking the UAE public sector job market situation

This article appeared originally in Gulf News: link to original article

The job market situation in the UAE, needless to say, is quite complex. There’s a private sector that needs to up its recruitment and a public sector that needs to be smaller regardless of what’s happening in the private sector.

The question here is how can we strike a balance between the two?

Working for the government in the UAE is considered the default and safest option for most citizens, and as long as that is the case, there is no motivation for individuals to pursue careers in the private sector. In fact, individuals who start their careers in private and semi-public sectors end up in more prestigious positions in the public sector, once they have cashed out from their previous jobs and can now enjoy the auspices of a senior government post with additional pay to go with it.

Within the public sector, this culminates in parachuting individuals in and slowing organic career growths, creating no entry level vacancies for individuals that the public sector might need. The problem here is that such a trend is not in any way sustainable for the public sector, which will end up much bigger than it needs to be to carry out its functions and operations efficiently.

When looking at the public sector, there is no way forward for it without a proper downsizing episode that would streamline processes and eliminate redundancies, thus creating a shortfall in the ample employment that the sector has had a legacy of creating and maintaining.

In other words, and even if that downsizing takes decades towards fruition, it will nevertheless create an urgent need for the private sector to expand and create additional job opportunities. Such opportunities shouldn’t inflate Emiratization figures, rather ensure successful career paths that would render a future shift to the public sector — unless it is to satisfy a pressing need for specific talent and skills — unnecessary.

So, how can we balance employment between public and private sectors in the UAE?

Embrace a merit and career path-based system

First, abolish the quota system with its broad classification of where the private entity belongs within a broad categorisation of commercial activity. The quota system has been an enabler of an Emiratization smokescreen, where management trainees could be recruited while doing their undergraduate studies. At the cost of meagre salaries times number of management trainees, private employers look good — and serious — with regard to their Emiratization policy.

Instead, embrace a merit and career path-based system. That is, there needs to be an annual review of how different entities are carrying out their Emiratization policies and how effective the policies are in preparing Emiratis for tomorrow’s job market. The focus mustn’t be on how many Emiratis are being recruited and retained by private employers, but what is being done to make them competitive in an international job market.

Annual reviews would reveal progress made since recruitment, with the highest achieving private employers being recognised and rewarded.

Secondly, encourage early public sector retirement with a substantial figure to go with it. Today’s entrepreneurs are tomorrow’s private sector. Seasoned individuals in the public and private sectors have been exposed to different cultures and ideas.

We need those ideas, especially ones that could contribute to the diversification of the economy, to be more contagious.

With the facilitation of an early retirement, individuals should be allowed to cash out with an amount matched by another from one of the multiple funds mandated to support entrepreneurial ventures. A downsized public sector will do well with an enlarged pool of entrepreneurs that would serve as the nucleus for tomorrow’s private sector.

One thing that is lacking in today’s private sector is genuine competition over talent, and a larger private sector will warrant that.

For all of the above to work, there needs to be an adequate understanding of the status quo of today’s job market in the UAE, current and future needs in terms of talent and skills, as well as a projection of entrants over the coming years. This is applicable for both the public and the private sectors.

Data gaps that were affordable in the past will not be affordable in the future, with unemployment posed to rise over the coming decades if there is no planning done today of how the job market can absorb thousands of Emiratis graduating every year. This is not a public versus private sector question, but a skills match versus mismatch.

The last thought that I want to leave you with: will a “golden handshake” policy work in the public sector?