Why Arabisation is still careering on
Arabisation has been a buzzword in the aerospace industry for the past decade, as governments have aimed to develop the region's human capital. Barbara Saunders looks at the progress being made and asks if Arabisation is soaring or stalled?
Arab governments have prioritised aerospace and aviation as local employment drivers and vaunted the success of the region’s growing aviation market, which is constantly outstripping average global growth.
According to Boeing, Gulf region airlines are expected to receive 3,310 new passenger and cargo aircraft, worth $770 billion, over the next 20 years.
In the UAE, the pursuit of Emiratisation has been signalled from the top. Recently, the country’s Minister of Economy, HE Sultan bin Saeed Al Mansoori, said: the UAE’s “vibrant and robust” aviation sector is “well positioned to continue to make significant contributions to the UAE’s economy, human resource development and support the UAE Vision 2021 strategy”.
But is the growth delivering local employment opportunities and ensuring that aviation is a preferred local career path with adequate ‘fit-for-purpose’ training?
Some see the issue as a major challenge, others as a huge opportunity. Across the region, efforts are under way to put Arab aviation on course to being a sector characterised by its very Arabness.
Arabisation of the industry is an economic and political necessity, according to Osama Fattaleh, CEO of Joramco, the Jordanian commercial aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) leader, which was recently acquired by DAE.
He believes the sector has a role in addressing job creation for the region’s expanding youth segment, with some experts estimating its MRO segment alone will require around 66,000 new technical personnel by 2034 – 11% of the industry total.
“One of the biggest challenges in the Arab world is youth unemployment and, among the biggest issues we face is that in some Arab countries, some youth do not look favourably on certain types of jobs on offer – semi-skilled production work, for instance. We are lucky in that there’s a growth in maintenance engineering, which is viewed favourably by a large segment of Arab youth.”
Joramco is a workforce Arabisation success story, with all of its near 1,000 employees being Jordanians. “We probably give the best career opportunities for two-year college degree holders to earn a very good standard of living,” said Fattaleh.
However, the Joramco CEO believes the training momentum laid out in the synchronised system of the early Arab aviation years has been lost.
“If you look back at the 70s and 80s, when we had growth from Gulf Air, Royal Jordanian and, to a certain degree, Kuwait Airways, they all had an eco-system for the entire industry spectrum, including pilot training. Many nationals worked within this eco-system. Today, with Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways, this eco-system is not generating sufficient jobs for the national workforce. If you look back at the 70s, many of the local students went to the west to train and developed extensive careers within the industry. Now there is a disconnect.
“Having a steady supply of employees coming from the Arab world to the Arab world is commercially and politically beneficial.”
For some, though, workforce multi-nationalism is an essential reality, at least for now. John Bowell, CEO of aviation consultants, ADA Millennium, says in the GCC aviation workforce expats outnumber locals.
Bowell believes the UAE leads in workforce localisation but the transition is more a marathon than a sprint. “With the government emphasis to increase the number of Emiratis employed by 5% per annum, it’s clear that there has been a big push. Etihad announced at the start of this year the successful reaching of its Emiratisation target implemented in 2007. This can only be the start. It’s important to note that, especially for aviation, one of the main challenges is the absence of experience and competence amongst nationals, hence the reason for expatriates in the current environment.
“In such a highly specialised industry, it takes time to prepare these national future leaders with the skills and expertise to be able to carry out the roles currently filled by foreign nationals.
“The implementation of a specialist, integrated and concerted government initiative to build a platform for a knowledge-based national economy, generating proper jobs for qualified national professionals, can only help. There needs to be awareness that all localisation policies are not about just filling quotas, but empowering nationals and growing local economies.”
Operators can point to endeavours to build a training eco-system. Emirates-CAE Flight Training was launched in 2002 as the region’s first training facility to be approved by European, US and UAE aviation authorities. It provides courses for commercial and business carriers aimed primarily at flightdeck and maintenance personnel.
The Emirates Group has its own national recruitment and development strategy and employs nearly 3,000 Emiratis among its overall group workforce of 95,000, comprising 160 nationalities.
“We’ve spent years developing and establishing a strategy that would give us a structured framework, allowing us to measure and evaluate the effectiveness of our programmes,” said Amira Al Awadhi, Emirates’ VP national recruitment and development. The group’s four-stream rehlaty Emiratisation programme is aimed at ensuring national employees are matched with the right opportunities and given the development tools to grow.
Rehlaty, explained Al Awadhi, has an overall aim, rather than a specific quota goal. “We have set an Emiratisation target to recruit and retain UAE nationals and offer a range of career opportunities and scholarships to ensure our new recruits are well equipped for a dynamic career with the Emirates Group. Our aim is not to simply fulfil a quota, but to build, invest and contribute to the development of this nation through its people.”
In the past year, the group has introduced three new Emiratisation training programmes and its national recruitment department selected 831 UAE nationals this financial year – the highest since its establishment.
Low-cost carrier Flydubai, where the multi-national staff register now tallies 3,393, says its Arabisation is influenced by UAE General Civil Aviation Authority regulations, which require an Arabic-speaking cabin crew member on every flight. Almost a quarter of its cabin crew are now Arabic speakers.
“We are seeing strong interest from Arabic-speaking candidates from across our network and receive an average of 1,000 applications a day,” said the airline’s spokesperson.
For Dubai Airports, which manages the operation and development of both Dubai International and Al Maktoum International, Emiratisation starts at the top. Meshari Al Bannai, SVP human resources, Dubai Airports, says the company has a target to have Emiratis represent 40% of its leadership.
“We recently appointed four Emiratis into executive positions within the company to strengthen our senior management team and augment our ability to deliver our long-term strategic plan to support our future growth. We are proud to have reached 35%, and are confident that we will achieve our ultimate goal of 40 % in the near future. This group makes up almost 20% of our total workforce, with 8% of leadership positions held by female Emiratis.
“The target forms part of the Dubai Airports’ strategic people and culture plan, which is aimed at providing a fertile ground for employees to flourish and to facilitate a culture that encourages innovation, customer centricity and best practice service delivery throughout the company.
“The plan also incorporates a range of initiatives that are in development to support the target, including the introduction of a formal Emiratisation policy in 2016 and work to improve our employer brand proposition to attract future Emirati employees.”
Despite the endeavours, Al Bannai admits there are hurdles to fulfilling Emiratisation targets. “The main recruitment challenge we face is attracting employees with the right combination of skills and experience. Each role within Dubai Airports has an element that ultimately contributes to delivering a great passenger experience. In a fast-growing business, with a complex two-airport operation, we need talented individuals that can become game-changers at the forefront of customer innovation.”
Abu Dhabi Airports Company (ADAC) said that Emiratisation was one of the distinguishing features of its sustainable growth and development plan and that recruitment and retention of UAE national talent was integral to the company’s success. “Abu Dhabi Airports exceeded its target for Emiratisation in 2015, with 50% of its workforce now being UAE nationals. Moreover, the number of Emiratis in our higher management positions has reached 72%,” a spokesperson said.
The airport has developed its national development programme (NDP) for employing and training UAE graduates.
“The programme is delivered over an 18-24-month period and focuses on enabling candidates to obtain practical experience and occupational skills. This is done by placing the trainees in various departments according to their major of studies, delivering on-the-job training, and monitoring their progress through a structured assessment system, to ensure a stable and productive programme,” the company said.
“Aviation will play a significant role in the diversification of the economy, as outlined in Abu Dhabi’s economic vision 2030. It is, therefore, imperative to develop national expertise within the industry to deliver sustainable growth.
“A total of 90 UAE nationals have been enrolled in the NDP so far, and 38 of them have now been confirmed as permanent employees of Abu Dhabi Airports. In addition, since the launch of Abu Dhabi Airports’ stipend programme in 2013, 56 students have enrolled in various universities and colleges across Abu Dhabi, with the objective of employing them in the company upon graduation.”
Talent, ambition and experience are the challenges that seem to surface time and again and, for most, education and training opportunities are the answer – providing they are packaged in a coordinated and industry-targeted manner.
Some say progress has been made, pointing to an increase in the number of a colleges and universities now offering aviation courses.
Dubai Civil Aviation Authority (DCAA), Dubai Air Navigation Services (dans) and Emirates Aviation University (EAU) this summer pencilled a long-term strategic partnership to train and develop human resources and provide full-fledged technical academic programmes for aviation students and professionals.
Dr Ahmad Al Ali, EAU’s vice chancellor commented: “There is global demand for operational and technical roles, such as air traffic controllers and navigators – particularly in this part of the world, where air traffic is expected to continue growing. This new joint venture allows us to capitalise on dans’ technical expertise in air navigation and traffic management to provide a highly specialised resource that our industry needs for future development.”
This kind of industry-academia collaboration is a start in plugging what Joramco’s Fattaleh says is “a disconnect” between education and the sector.
“The infrastructure exists. There are training facilities in many of the Arab countries and universities are now offering a range of aviation-related courses. The problem is that no-one is bringing the training organisations and the airlines together; to assure success there has to be some kind of long-term view in this regard,” he said.
Fattaleh has no doubts about where that responsibility lies: “The large airlines have the most vested interest in this.”
Joramco set up its own independent, non-sectarian, co-educational academy in 2008. It provides comprehensive education to prepare graduates for productive careers and responsible citizenship, with special emphasis on the needs of aviation, aerospace, engineering, and related fields.
There have been much-touted successes though, including Mubadala’s entry into specialised aero-structures manufacturing in Al Ain through Strata Manufacturing.
Homaid Al Shimmari, Mubadala’s chief executive officer of aerospace and engineering services, has said that the company will see its employee numbers grow from 700 to 1,200 by 2020, with an Emiratisation rate above 50%.
In the defence sector, the region’s offset policies play a role in national development, with bids now being sought that include a focus on technology transfer and employment of nationals.
But things aren’t so rosy within business aviation, according to Josh Stewart, founder and CEO of XJet. He says, currently, the region is fully focused on commercial travel, leaving business aviation trailing behind and representing missed opportunity, particularly for new career paths for nationals.
“There is a huge demand for people in business aviation. We are quoting half a million pilots and half a million engineers and yet, when people think of an aviation career, they automatically think commercial or defence and that doesn’t translate down to business aviation.”
Ali Alnaqbi, founding chairman of the Middle East Business Aviation Association (MEBAA) says business aviation’s manpower dilemma stretches beyond pilots, engineers and mechanics and MEBAA is addressing it through a dedicated education campaign, which is bringing governments, schools and universities into the mix.
“During our MEBA show, we have a futures day where invited students attend and speakers try to impress upon them the importance of business aviation and the opportunities it offers,” he said. “We are also talking to universities in Morocco about an aero club for business aviation.”
MEBAA is also going into institutions and campaigning for business aviation to be included in the curriculum. “We would also encourage the big companies and original equipment manufacturers to host or give scholarships to students who are really interested to learn about business aviation.”
One seasoned aviation HR and change-management specialist, Karen Storey, whose clients have included Dubai Airports and Abu Dhabi Airports Company, says that though the sector has progressed workforce localisation more than some other regional segments, challenges are still on the horizon.
“Helping young talent to see the sector as critical to the region’s economic stability and to consider aviation as the career path of choice needs more focus. The sector proposition needs to be made more compelling and those conversations need to start much earlier.
“New sectors such as aerospace and technology will continue to compete for the same talent pool. The industry needs to get creative to attract those in (STEM) science, technology, engineering and maths, who are unclear about the sector’s varied and long-term career prospects.
Storey proposes a regional aviation skills and career alliance, where all sector players, public and private, work together to “sell” the sector to local job-seekers, forecast skill requirements across all disciplines and develop accredited and standardised national occupational skills standards and career pathways. “There is a huge opportunity with such an alliance to create a hub where talent can understand career development opportunities and have evidence that aviation can be a sound career choice.”
A holistic cross-industry approach could find favour with Joramco’s Fattaleh, who believes a new eco-system will benefit all.
“There’s probably about 1,000 people working in the Gulf who went through our eco-system inherited from Royal Jordanian. They are highly skilled. If there’s a way to match supply and demand in an organised fashion it will be a win-win for airlines such as Qatar Airways, Etihad, Emirates, as well as governments, which are seeking to create employment opportunities,” he said.