Emirati excellence

As government agencies clamp down on the employment of expatriates in favour of Emiratis, UAE shipping firms must start embracing local talent to avoid financial repercussions.


The news that companies with over 100 employees must have half of their human resource divisions emiratised within 18 months comes as a stark reminder to the sea freight industry. Meeting the emiratisation targets set by the UAE government, without impacting on operations, is a challenge that must be given careful consideration by the maritime business. Indeed, this sector is particularly worthy of attention - the industry is sure to be targeted in a focused way because it is inextricably linked with the fortunes of the country.

Better to plan and adapt employment policies now, rather than squander precious earnings on future fines and penalty actions.

Employers in the maritime sector should be aware that the Ministry of Labour is cracking down on companies that fail to employ suffi cient numbers of UAE nationals. The threat is far from empty, and startled employers have expressed despair that the ministry has resorted to blocking financial transactions. Forward planning and adherence to reasonable targets can easily avoid the devastating effect such sanctions could have on business and corporate reputations. Many firms are liable to face some sort of penalty in the future, with ministry figures suggesting only 9.2% of firms in the private sector are meeting its emiratisation quotas.

“The main problem in recruiting for logistics professionals is that very few universities offer degrees in logistics and supply chain management, which means that there are very few graduates coming into the marketplace,” says John Halpin, general manager of recruitment services at Dublin-based Hy-Tech Logistics.

Far from seeing this as a barrier to growth, firms need to embrace the challenge and follow the example set by the National Association of Freight Logistics (NAFL). “You have to understand that this is an industry where job opportunities were not great. International companies originally wanted people with certain qualifications and experience. What we have done at NAFL is take the initiative,” says Captain Mansoor Ghafoor, NAFL president. “We have a training centre, and we are going to have a bigger training institute, which will be dedicated to this purpose.”

Regionally, the industry lacks the infrastructure to meet emiratisation demands, but this is changing. “The NAFL institute may be the only specialised training centre for these needs in the Middle East, and quite possibly Africa too,” explains Ghafoor. “In fact, African countries come to me, in my capacity as International Federation of Freight Forwarders Association (FIATA) vice president for Middle East and Africa, for help in this regard.”

Since His Highness General Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai and Prime Minister of the UAE, announced the emiratisation plan, responsible employers have begun implementing their procedures. “For us, the important thing, ever since the initiative came from Sheikh Mohammed, is to find the ways and the means to do it,” adds Ghafoor.

This summer saw Amlak Finance, the largest publicly listed Islamic finance company, hold a six-week training programme for college and university students. The programme, named Kafa’a, the Arabic word for competence, inducted national students into the professional sphere. The bridging programme proved educational to the participants and useful for the firm.

“All of the students demonstrated superior skills and enthusiasm for work,” says Shahli Akram, deputy CEO of Amlak. “The students actually helped to clear the workload. Summer is usually busy as we streamline and plan, so it was not one-way traffic at all.”

Cooperation is vital. In terms of tapping into the labour market and understanding legislative measures and dictats, many governmental agencies are willing to help. “We are already working with the executive offi ce, and with Dubai Customs International on the Emirates Nationals Development Programme (ENDP),” explains Ghafoor. “The start is to train national graduates by equipping them with the basic knowledge of shipping and freight forwarding, then the employment process begins.”

Despite success stories, many employers are still reluctant to voluntarily emiratise their workforce, citing a lack of motivation among their reasons. However, those firms that do actively offer proper training and work experience programmes, tend to find the take-up rate high and discover a real zest for work from applicants.

“My view on working in the private sector used to be negative,” enthuses Sheikha Al Meqbaly, a high school graduate at the end of the ENDP. “But after joining the programme my views have changed.”

The best policies will be those targeted at skills-based emiratisation, rather than an ad hoc battle to hit targets. The national labour force is highly educated, with many speaking a good level of English by the time they graduate. These skills need to be put to use in the private sphere early on to foster a work ethic and corporate culture relevant to the industry.

Grabbing talented individuals sooner rather than later is the best way to coach corporate values, and employment fairs at universities offering attractive training and skill development courses have proved highly successful in this regard.

In meeting recruitment needs and targets, the firms that adopt a targeted strategy will avoid government interference. The most sensible starting point is to identify the functions where your strategic emiratisation will take place. Waiting for ministerial directives poses problems of its own, not least that once a department is targeted, there will be a scramble for the brightest, most talented graduates to fi ll these jobs.

Halpin says the industry is not perceived to be glamorous or well paid and there are very few graduates from other fields who would consider moving into the industry. He suggests it is up to the industry to promote the benefi ts of a career in freight logistics.

This element is not unique to the Middle East. “The industry, globally, is evolving so fast in terms of technology that experienced and skilled logistics and supply chain professionals are at a premium,” Halpin says.

Once the right talent has been procured from the labour market, both expatriate employees, and the nationals that have been hired, need the right incentives to work closely. Aligning the process alongside expatriate needs is also a key consideration. Motivation levels will take a dive if foreign workers begin to feel alienated and apprehensive about their own career prospects. By setting out clearly defi ned career paths and offering performance-based rewards, expatriates will not be worried about future job security, and nationals will feel valued as a team member and not just a tick-in-a-box.

The all important transfer of knowledge can now be put in motion. If funds permit, a good way to attract the best candidates and minimise disruption to operations is to offer overseas training courses. In this way, the student will be immersed in the corporate ethic familiar to western operators.

Currently, 13 UAE nationals are participating in the Overseas Study Programme, which is a crucial part of the emiratisation process at Dubai Ports Authority (DPA). The trainees have been selected for the marine pilotage, fi nance, and technical management departments.

“We are strongly committed to developing a cadre of capable UAE nationals to drive our future growth. We are confi dent that at the end of their training, these young nationals will add value to our organisation,” a DPA spokesperson said.

Although a lot of advice is readily available, the single most important sentiment has to be ‘act now’. Last minute flurries of activity and rushed hiring will cost the industry dearly. Candidates with the most promise will have been snapped up by more forward-thinking rivals, and what is left over may not be suited to your firm’s specific needs. With broad sweeping directives, it is becoming increasingly impossible for firms to tweak job titles in order to avoid ministerial measures. The firms that act now will be far more adequately equipped to face the future and ensure smooth running operations in the UAE.

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