Multiple surveys have suggested that the recruitment of graduates with the necessary soft skills is a challenge for organisations globally, with the retention of talented graduates also an issue.

And it’s not just employers who are frustrated by the problem. The Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) works with international branch campuses in Dubai’s free zones. Their research has shown that graduates typically spend between three and six months looking for employment, while law graduates spend as much as a year searching for a job.

One third of graduates reported difficulties in finding jobs, with ‘lack of experience’ cited as the major obstacle. A survey last year revealed that ‘finding a job’ was seen as the biggest challenge faced by the latest generation of graduates across MENA.

The poll found that 56 per cent of fresh graduates believed the education they received either did not prepare them to target their industry of choice (22 per cent), or did so but only to some extent (34 per cent). Seven in 10 graduates surveyed said that their college did not help them identify or apply for job opportunities. What can be done to improve the situation?

The KHDA said that students who complete internships have better prospects of finding a job, so in 2016 the ‘Earn as you Learn’ initiative was launched in free zones to allow students to gain work experience on a part-time basis.

Minister of state for higher education and advanced skills, Dr Ahmad Belhoul, spoke earlier this year at the UAE Public Policy Forum about Emirati graduates, and said that “40 per cent of students have skills which aren’t needed in the market”.

A mismatch between graduates’ skills and those demanded by business will certainly contribute to a low retention rate among graduates, which is costly for companies and bad for graduates’ personal brand and CV.

However, there is a lack of data on graduates. A centre for higher education data and statistics was established in 2012, but closed down in 2014. Recognising the need to collect data on graduates and to close the skills gap, Dr Belhoul launched a new government department in spring of 2017. Education and organisations are now being encouraged to work together.

“There has been a suggestion that graduates job-hop frequently as a result of lack of engagement with the employer,” said Dr Warren Fox, chief of higher education at KHDA. “We have no evidence that this phenomenon is more marked in Dubai than elsewhere in the world. Today’s graduates look for variety, stimulation, recognition and reward. If employers fail to satisfy these needs, graduates will move on when the opportunity arises.”

Graduate recruitment has recently been made a priority by the UAE government. The Mohammed Bin Rashid Innovation Fund (MBRIF), an AED2billion (US$549 million) UAE federal government initiative, is making its first disbursement to InternsME, an employment network that helps build career opportunities for youth in the region. The aim of the grant is to give “fresh graduates and university students an opportunity to be part of the workforce and contribute positively to the UAE”, according to Younis Haji Al Khoori, undersecretary of the Ministry of Finance.

Jean-Michel Gauthier, chief executive at InternsME, said he believed there were a lot of macro-level aspects that have led to the difficulties young people face today in launching their careers. “Public sector dependency, outdated educational curricula, and private investment into the region,” he said. “But these can be battled at a micro-level with companies and young people engaging in more internships, structured on-the-job training and professional mentoring.”

According to InternsME’s research, graduates have a higher retention rate than mid-stage professionals, and the most influential factor for graduates when it comes to choosing a role is the opportunity for growth. Creating structured development frameworks from day one for internships and graduate jobs is key to a successful programme, said Gauthier.

It is also important to start planning a graduate recruitment programme long before it actually starts. “Companies with successful schemes, such as Mastercard, Johnson & Johnson and DMCC, create a structured framework, assign mentors, involve graduates on real projects that have an impact, and ask them to present their learnings at the end,” said Gauthier.

There are a multitude of graduate training schemes and recruitment programmes run by businesses in the UAE and wider GCC region. But some organisations are finding that graduates lack relevant degrees. This issue was also highlighted at the recent EdaraLab conference in Dubai. Experts at the event spoke about how some students may be studying degrees they enjoy, but which may not be likely to lead them to employment.'s research shows that the most in-demand degrees in the UAE are business management, engineering and commerce.

Suzanne Gandy, director of talent management at Dubai Multi Commodities Centre, has previously said that graduate candidates do not have the finance and IT skills most desired by the DMCC in order to accept graduates onto its year-long training programme. Gandy said the DMCC has had to speak to the region’s universities about making students aware of the opportunities skills in finance and IT can create. Judy Hou, managing director at the Emirates Academy of Hospitality Management, is responsible for liaising with the training institute and industry in the region. She said that in the hospitality industry there are plenty of opportunities for graduates.

“Most of our graduates – around 70 per cent – stay in Dubai or within the region because there are many jobs. The luxury goods, construction and engineering and consultancy sectors also present lots of different opportunities,” she said.

With most of the academy’s students staying one to two years in their first role and then progressing to middle and senior management positions, it appears that the hospitality sector in the region is one sector that is successfully working with education providers to ensure that newly employed graduates are engaged and committed in their new jobs. The challenge now is for others to follow suit.

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