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UAE Handbook Seeks to Predict Future Labor Needs

Finding employment for its university graduates is a problem every Arab country faces. The United Arab Emirates has borrowed an idea from the U.S. Department of Labor and created a detailed handbook defining the jobs it wants the country’s young people to take.

The Occupations and Careers Handbook for UAE Nationals, first published in 2013 and nearly six hundred pages long in the Arabic edition, is a catalog of possible occupations for a young Emirati.

Its entries offer the job seeker all they could want to know about a specific occupation, in granular detail. Individual entries describe exactly what a particular job involves and requires, give salary and employment prospects, and even describe the physical conditions to expect. (“Outdoor work.” “Noisy.”)

Work begins this month on a second edition. The handbook is the product of an effort by the country’s head of state, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and executed by the UAE’s National Qualifications Authority, aimed at increasing the number of UAE nationals in the country’s labor force. It appears to be the first publication of its kind in the region and focuses on the parts of the economy the country wants to develop. The top five sectors are energy, transportation, construction, manufacturing and utilities and infrastructure.

Tony Palladino, now a management consultant in Dubai, was the handbook’s architect. Explaining the thinking behind its detailed descriptions, Palladino said the goal was to show an Emirati student “what a job actually looks like.” A person might aspire to a career in engineering without knowing exactly what an engineer does. Palladino is critical of the country’s higher-education professionals for their lack of experience outside of academia, and attitudes that favor the status a degree confers over actual vocational knowledge.

The UAE Handbook takes its system of classifying occupations from the U.S. Labor Department’s Occupational Outlook Handbook, which was first published in 1948 to help returning veterans of World War II find work.

The U.S. handbook was the model Palladino and his team followed. The intended audience was students, teachers and careers advisors. The handbook authors used economic statistics to forecast which occupations faced good growth prospects, and described those occupations in detail. An updated edition is published every two years.

Palladino used a modified version of the classification system and filled it with U.A.E. economic data, taken from the country’s big employers (airlines, for example), state-owned enterprises, and government. Official data about the country’s large expatriate labor force were an especially good economic indicator.

How do people find out about the handbook? Palladino described its original publication as a “soft launch.” It was not advertised, but introduced in face-to-face settings with presentations by officials at workshops and seminars, and accounts of these meetings were published in the local Arabic press. Five thousand copies were printed.

Sandra Haukka, a researcher who worked on the handbook, noted that funding constraints prevented development of the book into a smart-phone application or a website. “Only a big book is available, which might not be as attractive to young people,” she said.

The country’s public universities were important clients. The UAE has hundreds of institutions of higher education, big and small, public and private, and public education is dominated by three big institutions: United Arab Emirates University, the Higher Colleges of Technology and Zayed University. Tuition at these institutions is free for Emirati nationals. Together, they have about 130,000 students, according to the Ministry of Higher Education.

It’s too early to tell if the handbook has been successful. Sandra Haukka said that statistical information will be collected as part of work on the new edition. Until then, assessment must rely on anecdotal reviews by people familiar with it.

Natasha Ridge, executive director of the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research in Ras al Khaimah, noted a mismatch between the policy aims of the handbook and the reality of vocational guidance offered in the country. The main emphasis in career training is still on science, technology, engineering and math, rather than the wide range of occupations presented in the handbook, she said. For the handbook to be successful, she said, “there should be better coordination between ministries, to send a single message.”

Mustapha Karkouti, former director of corporate affairs at the Higher Colleges of Technology, sees the handbook in the context of the country’s rapid economic development over only a few decades. “Before it, there was no model,” he said. In an economy changing at a dizzying pace, he said, a young person cannot expect to follow in his father’s vocational or professional footsteps. The handbook answers this need. “A lot of people find it useful,” he said.

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