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The Federal Authority for Government Human Resources gave research on Emiratisation a boost by launching an annual award for scholarly work on the UAE labour market and human resources. This is a timely incentive because oil prices seem destined to remain some way off on their 2010—14 highs, and comfy government jobs are said to be a thing of the past.

Among the wining studies was one conducted by the UAE University; it was the first large-scale study to investigate the views of UAE nationals working in the private sector and polled 653 individuals. The survey included questions related to job satisfaction and also on context-specific sociocultural sentiments such as the prestige attached to a public sector job.

Indeed the UAE’s labour market’s distortions and segmentations cannot be fully understood, let alone addressed, without such issues being factored into the equation.

The research found that it was “salary and benefits” that most significantly and positively predicted the intention of Emiratis to continue working in the private sector, while “sociocultural influences” — societal attitudes on a given occupation’s prestige and status level — had the most significant negative effect and was likely to deter Emiratis from staying in the private sector.

In other words, money does still talk. However, employee satisfaction isn’t all about money, “training opportunities” and the “nature of job” also writ large. The latter finding is of importance because it implies, at the very least, that today’s graduates do see private sector occupations as more interesting and fulfilling, if compared to the more bureaucratic-style ‘classic’ public sector jobs.

However, as evidenced by the research, it continues to be the case that “classic” public sector positions continue to attract the most status and prestige. This sentiment is even more pronounced among male employees, with male respondents significantly more likely to be adversely affected by sociocultural influences (the pride or prestige attached to public sector positions) and be less happy with the nature (or “environment”) of work in the private sector.

The research has applied policy relevance. The more closely aligned like-for-like public/private sector positions become in terms of salaries, working hours and days of annual leave, the more attractive will be private sector career paths. Such alignment — most likely by way of more extensive subsidies or top-ups for nationals working in the private sector — would help redress the current notion that it is the citizens who’ve secured government jobs that have the higher status. The findings also show that internship programmes — that are now compulsory at some federal universities — are paying dividends and recommends that more interns should be placed in the private sector as about one-third of those surveyed were working for private sector companies where they had completed their internships.

Another revealing find was the fact that almost three-quarters of the sample of UAE nationals employed in the private sector currently had other members of their immediate family working in the same sector. Therefore government policy that champions those Emiratis who take up non-conventional private sector career paths will help change prevailing societal attitudes in relation to what is, and is not, considered a suitable career path for Emiratis.

Emilie Rutledge is Associate Professor, Economics & Finance, at UAE University.