UAE Lags in Apprenticeship Opportunities

Should UAE international school students be given more opportunities for apprenticeships in UAE based companies, or should they continue to head, en masse, to university. With the pay-off of tertiary education in decline the emirates is currently bucking a global trend…
UAE Lags in Apprenticeship Opportunities
By David Westley
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Too many graduates, not enough skilled people. While that is NOT a subject often discussed within the UAE, in advanced economies around the world it has moved to mainstream debate after years of university being promoted over technical and vocational qualifications and skills.

The result, certainly in many Western economies, is too many graduates (in debt), often unable to put their degree to a direct use, and a dearth of people with the right skills for the jobs that are actually available.

Over time this has shifted the financial dynamics between graduates and those that successfully follow an apprenticeship. As far back as 2016 in the UK, the amount apprentices earned over the course of their lives was outstripping that of graduates, with those in the arts, media, and publishing industries making up to 270% more than those who went to university, while apprentices in agriculture, horticulture, and animal care took home 211% more than graduates. The Barclays and the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) report noted that business, administration, and law accounted for the most apprenticeship, followed by health, public services, and care at 26 per cent.

The CEBR  report predicted apprenticeships would grow “exponentially” as potential university applicants face a challenging and unpredictable financial landscape as the abolition of maintenance grants and continuous increases in tuition fees create a potential financial burden, putting university out of reach for many".

In the UAE schools have begun down the path of providing alternative pathways for students - but the idea of apprenticeships is still very novel and not uncontroversial. Deira International School's Deputy Principal Paul Gardner, says the school is "fortunate to benefit from fantastic links to the Al Futtaim Education Foundation (AFEF) and by extension the Al-Futtaim Group.

"The AFEF provides work placements for our pupils studying at IB level in the automotive industry, financial services, real estate and retail sector. The learning that takes place during these experiences is invaluable. The ability to reflect on real life issues and experiences during interviews for University helps to set pupils at DIS apart and is something we are very proud to be a part of."

In addition, the Al-Futtaim brand group provides summer internship experiences as a bridge to the future by offering a real-life business simulating process and practice. Its Experiential Learning Programme was launched this summer, and was taken up by 27 students from Deira International School and Universal American School. Students were given two weeks in various businesses and departments across the group.

"The feedback from the interns was overwhelmingly positive. Students have even expressed an interest in returning for a longer internship and remarked on how the experience has helped them gain an insight in working in a corporate environment and helped them develop personally."

The program is to be extended to four-week internships, "simulating a full performance management cycle", in 2020. Students will be assigned a work attachment, students will also be assigned to a business coach, attend a structured learning developmental track (around business acumen) and spend time in the Al-Futtaim Innovation Hub.

"Due to our links with the AFEF and the Al-Futtaim group, we are certainly advantaged when it comes to industry integration.

"One of the long-term goals of the programme is to have students attend University and then come back to the industries in which they had their work experience, so our pupils are at a real advantage to others who don’t have this experience."


The media industry works out to be financially far more generous to apprentices than graduates over the long term.

At Jumeirah English Speaking School Dubai (JESS), the focus has been on the introduction of the BTEC, a UK based vocationally focused qualification for its students that wanted to develop more practical skills and work in industry. "Three years ago we initiated Level 3 BTEC programmes in Business, Sport and Art, Shane O'Brien, the school's Director told WhichSchoolAdvisor.com. "These have been a resounding success with our first graduating cohort - in June 2019 - not only securing direct entry into the first year of study at reputable universities but also a number of them have turned down their university offers and entered directly into internships and vocational programmes instead.

"There is definitely a movement away from the previous norm of naturally continuing into tertiary education."

That view is not wholly shared however. While DESSC has also introduced the BTEC, Chris Vizzard, the school's Head of Secondary, does not believe the UAE is seeing - yet - the need for apprenticeships as an alternate pathway to university.

"At DESC the vast majority of students will take up university places at the end of Year 13 and usually all will go on to study in KS5 from Year 11. Our needs are such that 'apprenticeship' style pathways are not an appropriate option for our students at this time."

We are sure this is an accurate refection of UAE student thinking, and where the UAE in general sits. We have, however, two questions:

1. Do the majority of students go onto university, because the UAE has need for graduates not apprentices? Given the emirate's ability to suck a technical workforce in from around, that is possible. However, wouldn't it too want home grown talent going into all levels of its businesses?
2. Even if the UAE does not want or need apprenticeships, yet, a majority of students at the likes of DESSC will not stay in the UAE, but return 'home', and if apprenticeships are prized in their home country; they should be prized by the students that will be returning to that economic reality.

One of the issues is no doubt the absence of a UAE tradition of its companies providing apprenticeships. Even the UK fares unfavourably compared to industrial powerhouse Germany, which had long had parallel (but equal) pathways for vocational and academically strong students. If lack of tradition is a cause, the question then becomes, how do you create it?


Whose job is it to create alternate vocational pathways? Schools, or industry itself?

Michael Lambert, Principal of Dubai College (DC), has an idea: "Imagine if the right to run a business in the UAE was tethered to an obligation to provide work experiences, work shadowing days and workshops to schools. This way companies would be falling over themselves to help schools, rather than schools taking on yet more responsibility for solving all of our society's needs.

"UAE schools continue to go from strength to strength due to intense regulation and quality assurance. It would, however, be great to see pressure applied to businesses rather than schools to find creative solutions to education/industry integration.

[Let's] shift some responsibility for some aspect of the future onto employers."

Until then schools are working, largely piecemeal, with third party organisations to begin this process. DC, for example, has tied up with Oliv [external link], a recruitment consultant. It also works with a "host" of firms and parents that provide work shadowing opportunities. Even the principal of one of Dubai's few academically selective schools also understands it is not always what you know, but who you know. Its annual Year 13 business dinner gives students networking opportunities with parents, partners and alumni across a range of industries.

"This [gives them] the inside track on recruitment from those in the know," says Mr Lambert. 

JESS's BTEC programme is at the core of "allowing its students to realise that university is not the only way forward..."

Continues Mr O'Brien: "The experience they gain and exposure to external business such as Grant Thornton, Kisbsons, Art Dubai, Emirates Leisure Retail to name but a few demonstrates to our BTEC students the possibilities that the world of work presents, whets their appetite and opens thinking about alternative routes to university study."

DESSC's careers programme has "strong links with many organisations and individuals who work in industries across many sectors," says Mr Vizzard. "We have 'spotlight' speakers who, on a weekly basis, share their experience with students and offer advice and guidance."

Nord Anglia International School in Dubai leverages local and global connections. "Within the UAE we work closely with Dubai Cares, says Principal Matthew Farthing, "and have a dynamic exclusive partnership with Dubai Opera both of which complement the Nord Anglia global partnerships with The Juilliard School of Performing Arts and UNICEF. Similarly, we make best use of the business cultures of innovation found in Dubai which associate well with our partnership with M.I.T. and an educational commitment to design thinking..."

Beyond the curriculum, all schools we spoke to are, on a more fundamental level, thinking about how to equip students for a world which may not play by the rules of today.

Whether students head towards university or industry, the UAE's best schools are working hard to give their students the ability to think critically, and make connections quickly. The flexibility to see beyond the facts in one of the reasons why some schools, notably in the UK, but not yet the UAE, are slowly cutting back on exams to give students more time to think creatively.

Students at Dubai College, for example, "sit democratically around a board table, co-creating knowledge and ideas with teachers and peers, challenging one another, linking to prior knowledge and questioning their assumptions.

In the process students develop oral skills, resilience, critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication, "which we know are the in-demand skills of the 21st century workplace," says Mr Lambert.

"As a principal and former product development manager for one of the big four retail banks in the UK these are exactly that I needed and continue to demonstrate on a daily basis. Our students are learning these as they learn at the school…”

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