Preparing for tomorrow: Vocational and technical education aims to boost Emirati employment

Reforms carried out over the past several years have been geared toward preparing Emiratis to fill the jobs needed in Abu Dhabi’s increasingly industrialised economy. As part of its strategic development plan, the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030, the government aims to transform the emirate into a knowledge-based economy by focusing on high-skill sectors like energy, aviation and biotechnology. To achieve these goals, the plan outlines the twin objectives of increasing the skill base of the workforce and boosting Emirati participation in it. Recognition of the emirate’s work thus far came with the December 2013 decision to select Abu Dhabi as the host for the 2017 WorldSkills Competition, an international platform for knowledge sharing.

By 2030, Abu Dhabi’s goal is for 51% of working-age nationals to be employed, and 31% of the workforce to have tertiary education. In 2005, Economic Vision 2030’s benchmark year, 25% of citizens worked and 16% of the workforce had a post-secondary degree. To close the gap, the government has invested in vocational and technical training at all education levels. “One of the things that sets Abu Dhabi apart is its forward planning,” Badr Aboul-Ela, director of the Commission for Academic Accreditation, told OBG. “They know the first nuclear reactor will come on-line in 2015, so six years ahead of that, they thought about training the technicians they will need and the scientists and engineers.”

On the federal level, the National Qualifications Authority (NQA) recently developed the soon-to-be-released “Occupations and Careers Handbook for UAE Nationals”, which identifies 12 sectors in need of skilled workers and the skills required for a career in these areas. Overall, the handbook identifies 155 specific occupations regarded as critical to the UAE economy and attractive to UAE nationals. “Many of those occupations require vocational training,” Dr Thani Al Mehairi, director-general of the NQA, told OBG.

ACTVET

 Formed in 2010 to “increase the number of skilled Emiratis placed in rewarding positions”, the Abu Dhabi Centre for Technical and Vocational Education and Training (ACTVET) is responsible for developing policy and regulating Abu Dhabi’s technical and vocational training institutions. ACTVET oversees two operating arms: the Institute of Applied Technology (IAT) and the Abu Dhabi Vocational Education and Training Institute (ADVETI), which implement policy and run facilities at the secondary and tertiary levels. IAT manages programmes across all seven emirates focusing on high-tech fields like robotics or aeronautics.

ADVETI operates seven institutes focused on vocational training in a range of fields from business and tourism to engineering and design. The Vocational Education Development Centre is a technical boarding school run by ADVETI geared for male students who have dropped out of the traditional school system.

The government has quickly built up the existing vocational infrastructure and continues to move proactively to meet the goals set out in Economic Vision 2030. ADVETI, for example, opened the first of its secondary technical schools in 2009 with 42 male students.

By 2012, the agency oversaw nine high schools and had graduated 352 students. The 1200 national students enrolled in ACTVET schools comprise about 12% of the local high school population, and the Abu Dhabi Executive Council has set a goal of increasing the proportion to 30% by 2017. “We have so little time to accommodate the demand,” Addel Al Ameri, managing director at ADVETI, told OBG. “The government is very supportive in terms of allowances to build those projects." Together ADVETI and IAT operate 20 technical and vocational schools serving grades 9-12. Four more will open soon, and ACTVET is building additional facilities.

Increasing Demand

 Today in Abu Dhabi, demand from students for technical education is high. In 2012, 5000 nationals applied for 1200 spots at ACTVET schools, for example. “We have demand from students for our programmes and demand from industry for our programmes,” said Al Ameri. “If we doubled our capacity, there would still be more demand.” This is a clear sign of success, as the agencies initially had to convince students that technical education was valuable. ACTVET continues to host skill competitions across the UAE, demonstrating their students’ achievements in 17 sectors, ranging from welding to nursing.

The success of ACTVET students has also set a strong example: 65% of graduates go on to higher education. Of those, 95% pass the foundation level in English, maths and science. Many students are sponsored by industry during their studies and graduate directly into a job. Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), Emirates Steel, Etihad Airlines and the Abu Dhabi Police all sponsor students and hire specific quotas each year.

Industry Partnerships

 From the beginning, the Abu Dhabi Executive Council has focused on building partnerships between technical and vocational institutes and local companies. The curricula are developed in conjunction with representatives from the relevant industry. In school, students learn on the equipment they will use in future employment, from computer numerical control machines to laboratory tools, and most are required to pursue internships while studying. Furthermore, representatives of key industries sit on the boards of both ADVETI and IAT.

For example, the energy sector is one area in which such training is particularly important. “Training young Emirati engineers on the latest technologies used by companies in the hydrocarbons sector is vital to ensure that those same companies are able to reduce their dependence on foreign talent,” the Petroleum Institute’s (PI’s) acting president and provost, Ismail A Tag, told OBG. “It will also help to ensure that there is an ample supply of domestic talent to manage hydrocarbons resources in the years to come.”

Higher Education Options

 Among the ADVETI and IAT institutions are those that offer tertiary diploma programmes. Abu Dhabi Polytechnic, for example, prepares students to find work in the nuclear industry, offering a diploma in advanced energy engineering technology, along with occupational certificates in specialisations such as radiation protection or operations.

Similarly, a number of degree programmes work with industry partners to ensure learning outcomes are able to meet industry needs. PI, which offers a bachelor’s in engineering and science along with some master’s programmes, is funded by ADNOC. All students attend the university free of charge, but in exchange are required to work for a set amount of time at ADNOC.

Khalifa University of Science, Technology and Research maintains partnerships with corporations from the Emirates Telecommunications Corporation to the Abu Dhabi Technology Investment Company, and a significant portion of Emiratis enrolled at the university are sponsored by corporations. Additionally, Masdar Institute of Science and Technology has scholarship agreements with the Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Authority, the ICT Fund of the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, Toyota and the International Renewable Energy Agency. To help ensure Emiratis enrol in and graduate from these science-based degree programmes, the Abu Dhabi government often offers stipends in addition to corporate sponsorships.

Challenges

While ACTVET has improved the perception of vocational training among students, many do not possess the foundational science and maths skills needed to enter vocational institutes. The reforms begun by the Abu Dhabi Education Council in 2010 place increased emphasis on maths and science in primary school. To date, the reforms have been implemented up to the sixth grade level and in three years students entering ninth grade will have been educated exclusively under the new model.

Alongside Abu Dhabi’s initiatives, the national government has also launched efforts to align educational outcomes with industry needs at the national level. Initially funded by the military in 2006, the NQA released the Qualifications Framework for the Emirates (QFE mirates) in 2012 to ensure schools at every level provide their students with set skills. “It is a framework developed by industry for industry,” Dr Al Mehairi told OBG.

The QFE mirates will take some time to implement as a range of agencies are responsible for measuring and accrediting institutions according to the standards set by the NQA. At the kindergarten through 12th grade level (K-12), the General Education Commission will adopt a qualifying process for government schools.

The Commission for Academic Accreditation (CAA), which regulates post-secondary education in the UAE, already requires all new programmes to adopt the QFE mirates criteria. In 2014, the CAA will also begin requiring established programmes to meet the learning outcomes as outlined in the QFE mirates.

Since early 2012, the commission has been offering educational institutions with training courses and seminars on how to implement the new standards. The programmes likely to face the biggest challenges will be those offered by business schools, said the CAA’s director, Badr Aboul-Ela. “Some of the programmes submitted for initial accreditation are just a bunch of undergraduate courses strung together,” he told OBG. “So they will have to go back and re-adjust the courses and their outcomes in order to be accredited.”

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The Report: Abu Dhabi 2014

Education chapter from The Report: Abu Dhabi 2014