Last week marked 5 years since we completed one of the most fulfilling recruitment assignments in my 9 years of work in this field. We had been asked to help hire UAE nationals across Dubai Metro’s Green Line which was to be inaugurated by a visit by the Prime Minister of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid. This would be the first time the Dubai Metro project would be unveiled to the world. I realised after my first meeting that the task at hand was going to be a challenging one. The opening of the Green Line would be in less than 5 months’ time and the company needed to identify, hire, on-board and train up UAE nationals who would man the metro and the various stations by the time Sheikh Mohammed visited to launch the project.
We agreed that failing to hire these nationals on time would leave a bad taste to the launch of a ground-breaking project like Dubai Metro. We worked closely with the employer, and put in a lot of effort and time to eventually gather the first batch for the first Open Day, a group of approximately 120 local job-seekers. Two more batches would follow after that. In the end, after a series of Open days in different locations, presenting to job-seekers, interviewing the interested ones and speaking to parents of some of the younger job-seekers.
The Opening of the Green Line was a success, and it was even better given the fact that across the different stations, young Emirati employees could be seen as Station Agents, Station Masters and Ticket Inspectors among others.
The experience of hiring locals for Dubai Metro was an eye-opener to me personally. It helped me further understand the challenges private sector employers face in attracting and retaining local talent, it also left me with lessons some of which I use as anecdotes today when I talk to employers seeking to hire nationals. However, most importantly to me the experience shattered a number of myths that have been floating in the market when it comes to hiring locals. Here are 3 things I learned hiring locals for Dubai Metro:
Don’t underestimate the importance of your ‘employer brand’
A lot of the multinational employers who come with a strong reputation globally tend to assume that their existing brand is sufficient to woo local job-seekers and as a result put little or negligible effort in communicating what is the distinctive ‘employee experience’ their organisation has to offer and what does their employer brand stand for in the bigger context. For local talent, understanding the company’s ‘employer brand’ and ‘employee experience’ helps them buy into the idea of committing to a career in the organisation. It also provides them with a powerful narrative they can use to deflect family and society pressure to look at a job in the public sector as an alternative. Contrary to common belief local job-seekers can be very pragmatic, outcome-oriented and selective about the career choices they make. In my workshops I teach employers that there are a number of things local talent look for in an employer’s brand. In the case of Dubai Metro, since the employer was in fact a multinational company; we worked on building an emotional link between their careers with the employer and their potential role in being part of building a progressive economy and society.
Dispelling the myth of work and salary expectations’ of local job-seekers.
Whenever I speak about Emiratisation in public forums or behind closed doors, I can’t help but notice employers roll their eyes. It doesn’t take them so much time to jump at me with the “yeah, but we can’t afford the high salaries local job-seekers ask for”, or “we work really long hours, and locals surely wouldn’t accept this”. Granted that yes, high salary expectations and an eagerness to work in the government sector is a challenge when it comes to hiring nationals. However, the biggest injustice we can do is to generalise this perception. During our interviews with the locals applying for work in the metro, we were surprised to find local job-seekers who were earning salaries of 6,000 to 10,000 dirhams in their existing jobs (a far cry from the $7,300 the media had claimed to be the expectation of a university graduate). I often help employers understand that the salary expectations of local talent are really influenced by the law of ‘supply and demand’ of talent in a specific region or industry, the region they are recruiting from them as well as the exact economic scenario at play when an employer is hiring. This is another interesting topic I’ll address in future articles.
Beyond common perceptions, many of the local job-seekers have real stories and struggles.
In my years working with employers, I’ve observed that quite often hiring managers and recruiters tend to ‘pigeon-hole’ local job-seekers as well as employees into a hole that reads “Not interested in hard work, will definitely ask too much for a salary”. However, what employers must do is scratch the surface and try to understand that these are ‘real’ people with their own unique stories, motivations and aspirations which they bring to the table. During one of the Open Days recruiting for the Metro I remember the divorced single mother of five kids, who attended the interview and was honest with us about the reason she had applied for the role, she needed the job to support her children rather than rely on hand-outs. In fact, more than half of those who attended the interviews were Emirati women. There was also the degree holder who had been out of work for two years at least, and shared with me the emotional toll of being unemployed in a society with a lot of expectations. I met a number of job-seekers who drove all the way from places such as Fujairah and Ras Al Khaimah to apply for the jobs, but had no idea how would they work out the shifts. All they wanted was a job that would provide them a decent living and give them the chance to be part of something meaningful.
At times I’m reminded by the important role we all played in changing the lives of this group of enthusiastic locals when I take the metro and one of the locals we helped hire comes to say a quick hello looking sharp dressed in a suit. I couldn’t help but feel proud when one of the Emirati women called me 2 years after she started working for the metro to tell me how she was now in-charge of one of the stations.
If I would sum up all the lessons I learned recruiting locals for this particular project, it would be that as employers, recruiters, line managers and even policy makers we need to bring ourselves to not get caught up in all the simplified stereotypes which surround locals, and seize to perceive them as a number or a percentage on a piece of paper.
I’ll leave you all with some of the statements of the Emiratis who were hired in the metro as reported by local newspaper The National:
Sumaiya Abdul Rahman, 32, a mother of three who has also been employed as a stationmaster, said: “This is my dream job. I am in charge of the whole station and its equipment, and responsible for staff.”
Mohammed Humaid, 34, said he applied because he wanted a new challenge.
“I decided to give the Metro a chance,” said Humaid, 34, who is also a trainee stationmaster. “It’s a new industry in the region and everybody likes to be part of the latest and advanced technology – especially a nerd like me.” Humaid’s wife is expecting next month and he thinks the Metro’s shift work will allow him to help his wife raise their child without the need of maids.
Kawthar Al Kitani, 28, said job satisfaction was far more important to her than salary. “Even though this job pays me a lot less than my previous one and I have a lower position, it doesn’t matter to me,” “What matters to me is that they care for their employees and their career development.” Ms Al Kitani said
This article is dedicated to my friend, partner and Mentor Nathan McCole who worked tirelessly with me to help these UAE nationals pass their interviews and join successfully. Nathan volunteered and asked for no fee to train and prepare groups after groups of candidates for the railway test they would have to sit as part of the hiring process. Sadly, Nathan passed away earlier this year. Rest In Peace.