In late April 2017 Dubai’s Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM), which oversees tourism development in the emirate, announced the establishment of Dubai College of Tourism (DCT). The new institution signalled a major move on the government’s part to address the shortage of well-trained hospitality staff in the emirate.
Even as Dubai’s tourism sector has grown rapidly over the past decade, many hotels, tour operators, retail outlets and other tourism-related or tourism-adjacent industries have struggled to find and retain a high-quality workforce.
In part this is down to the rapid pace of growth. From 2004-13 the emirate saw hotel room supply post a compound annual growth rate of around 10% (see analysis). Significantly, the bulk of this new supply was in five-star properties, which have tended to dominate the Dubai market.
“The lead time to [train a new hospitality sector employee] is 18 to 24 months to be competent and skilled in a five-star hotel,” Martin McGuigan, partner at human resources consultancy Aon Hewitt, told local media in 2014, at the peak of public concern about the labour shortage in Dubai’s tourism industry. “Better hotels invest more into getting staff up to speed, while other hotels put more into wages, circumventing the need to train new hires [by hiring industry-ready workers].”
This has caused challenges across the market. Many hotel managers are hesitant to invest in training, for fear that newly trained employees will move to a higher-paying position at a competing property as soon as possible. The workforce is undersupplied, so staff turnover rates remain high. “The volume of new hotels opening here is enormous,” Syed Mohammad Asad Zaidi, general manager of the Ramada Chelsea Hotel in the Al Barsha neighbourhood, told OBG. “And there are more than 100 new properties set to open in the next few years. It is hard to keep up with training and workforce development in this competitive environment.”
Indeed, the staffing issues currently affecting the tourism industry are very similar to workforce-related challenges facing a wide swathe of Dubai’s economy. Despite an oversupply of job seekers in mid-2016, construction firms, among many others, reported having trouble hiring skilled workers for middle management and specialist roles. This issue can be attributed in large part to the macroeconomic pressures that have hit the region in recent years, which have caused many firms to cut their pay and benefits packages. “The lower packages are affecting the talent crunch,” Michael Gilmore, a managing partner at global recruitment agency Morgan McKinley, told local media in late March 2016. “Our neighbours [like] Saudi Arabia benefit from the downturn, offering highly skilled workers higher increments to make the move, while Oman offers similar packages but much more cost-effective.”
The government’s response to this issue has been to invest in new vocational training for tourism-sector workers and other kinds of employees. “The DTCM has played a central role in the development of the tourism industry here over the years,” said Mark Lee, the general manager of Media One Hotel, which is located in Media City.
The opening of DCT in early 2017 signals a major step forward in this area. The college currently has five faculties: tourism, hospitality, culinary arts, retail and events, with programmes of varying intensity and length on offer in each. The institution aims to serve as a bridge between traditional schooling and employment in the tourism industry, with a particular focus on attracting UAE nationals to work in the sector. As such, its programmes have been designed to be flexible and practical. Most contain a minimum two-week internship with one of DCT’s industry partners, which include firms such as Dubai Airports, Dubai World Trade Centre, Royal Arabian Destination Management, AccorHotels and Marriott. “The college’s strong relationships with industry stakeholders, many of whom are members of our advisory board, will mean that we are best positioned to help our students find jobs after they have completed their training,” Essa bin Hadher, the general manager of DCT, told local media at the college’s launch announcement in April 2017.
The establishment of DCT was led by the DTCM, in conjunction with the aforementioned stakeholders. The facility’s programming was developed in large part by TAFE SA, one of Australia’s largest vocational education and training providers. In Dubai TAFE SA has provided curriculum development advisory services and participated in teacher training. As of mid-2017 DCT was in the process of applying for accreditation for its education programmes from the Knowledge and Human Development Authority, Dubai’s quality assurance institution which oversees private education institutions in the emirate.
DCT’s initial intake of students will enrol in its “Introduction to the Tourism Industry” programme, covering subjects including: customer service and its importance within the tourism industry; introduction to marketing; communication, teamwork and problem solving; IT basics; numeracy for the workplace; and environmental sustainability. Beginning in January 2018 students will be able to enrol in more in-depth, specialised certificate and diploma courses, in line with the college’s five faculties.
Encouraging UAE nationals to work in the tourism industry is key for the DTCM. Bringing more Emiratis into the workforce is necessary to reach the DTCM’s target of 20m annual visitors by 2020. The city is unique among major global tourist destinations, in that incoming tourists outnumber residents by a factor of seven. In 2016 the emirate recorded 14.9m visitors, up from around 14m in 2015. With these figures in mind, the 2020 goal is an ambitious one, even by Dubai’s historically high standards.
That said, with the oil price stabilising and Dubai’s reputation as a safe haven in a volatile region, many local tourism operators are moving forward with the idea that the 2020 goal is achievable. According to research by GRMC Advisory Services, a Dubai-based consultancy and research house, by 2030 Dubai has the potential to attract 25m-30m tourists per annum. By 2020 the DTCM expects that the tourism sector will be larger than the emirate’s financial services, oil and construction industries combined.
The government wants to bring more nationals into the industry for two key reasons. First, it intends for citizens to be the primary beneficiaries of the expected continued rapid growth in tourism. Second, the DTCM is invested in maintaining a national character across the sector. This latter objective is shared by many private tourism entities operating in Dubai. “Our industry provides a unique opportunity for Emiratis to act as ambassadors for the nation’s rich culture and heritage,” Ahmed Lasheen, regional director of human resources on the Arabian Peninsula for hospitality firm Hilton, told local media in April 2017. “[This is] something our guests are telling us they increasingly want to experience first hand.”
Private Sector Focus
Private operators across Dubai’s tourism sector have become involved in playing an active role in the development of the sector’s workforce and boosting the involvement of UAE nationals. In 2017 the DTCM partnered with local retail, hospitality and entertainment firms to promote the opening of DCT including companies like Emaar, DXB Entertainments, IMG Worlds of Adventure, Rotana Hotels and Resorts, Jumeirah Group, JA Resorts and Hotels, and Chalhoub Group; as well as a number of international brands, including Millennium Hotels and Resorts, AccorHotels, Marriott International, Palazzo Versace, Hilton and InterContinental Hotels Group, among others.
The DTCM’s effort to attract a greater number of nationals to the sector has been a long-running initiative. It launched its Emiratisation Taskforce for Tourism in 2003, with original founding private sector members including Jebel Ali International Hotels, Jumeirah International, AccorHotels, Emirates Academy and Dubai Women’s College. The initiative aimed to raise awareness at high school and local community level about training and educational options, while also informing on the range of career opportunities available, and has reportedly had a considerable impact across the sector. The establishment of DCT is expected to support this effort.
At the 2017 iteration of the annual Careers UAE job fair, held in early April at the Dubai World Trade Centre, the DTCM sought to highlight two programmes at DCT that were specifically designed to attract UAE nationals, namely the Medyaf (generous host) Tourism Programme and the UAE Tour Guide Programme. There are two versions of the Medyaf Tourism Programme: high school graduates can enrol on a 15-week programme including basic soft business skills, English language and computer-literacy training; while university graduates can attend a nine-week programme with advanced soft business skills coaching. Both versions encompass on-the-job, tourism-related instruction. Upon completion of the programme, graduates receive a certificate and potential employment.
Holders of the Medyaf certificate are also encouraged to join the UAE Tour Guide Programme. This is a 10-day certification to become a licensed tour guide in Dubai, which encompasses regional knowledge, customer service, presentation and first aid training via several avenues, such as presentations from guest speakers, site visits and practical instruction. Emirati graduates of the UAE Tour Guide Programme residing in Dubai can apply for the Intalaq licence for home-based business set up by UAE Nationals, as well as for access to the Dubai small and medium-sized enterprise assistance fund. Both of these programmes are free for Emiratis living in Dubai.
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