A focus on educating and training the population has been enshrined in Oman’s national development strategies. In 1995 the government ensured that education would remain central to the country’s growth path under Oman Vision 2020, the national development plan. This document placed an emphasis on upgrading education services to meet international standards, and included quantitative goals for developing human resources.
The need to diversify the country’s output base and the national vision of developing a knowledge-based economy go hand in hand with the need to develop a local workforce to supply the skilled labour needed in growing sectors. The World Travel & Tourism Council, for example, reckons that Oman's tourism sector supported 37,000 direct jobs in 2013, or 3.3% of the total employment. This figure is expected to have grown by 11.4% in 2014, which translates to a staffing requirement of some 41,000 jobs.
While such goals are a positive sign for Oman, they are also fraught with challenges. There is currently a strong bias against vocational jobs, especially in areas perceived as service sectors, such as tourism. This perception is starting to fade as people begin see the value of private sector jobs, but it will take time to change more fully.
The development of technical and vocational training had its roots in the drive towards developing a comprehensive education sector in 1970. Since then, vocational education has become one of the primary pillars of the national strategy to develop the economy, diversify its industrial base and meet the needs of the labour market.
The Ministry of Manpower has adopted vocational and technical training as a core component of its development strategy. In this vein, the government’s eighth five-year plan, for 2011-15, allocated OR27.2m ($70.4m) to strengthen existing training programmes and another OR26.9m ($69.7m) to establish new technical colleges and training centres in Oman.
Apart from vocational training centres, the government has established several training programmes in the fisheries industry. These help workers specialise in subjects such as aquaculture, quality control, shipbuilding and repair, engine maintenance and other mechanical concentrations. In 2007, for example, the Ministry of Manpower set up a fisheries training institute in Al Khaboura in the Al Batina region, offering a diploma in aquaculture for high-school graduates. The Department of Marine Sciences and Fisheries at Sultan Qaboos University also offers bachelors, masters and post-graduate degree programmes in marine sciences and fisheries.
The government is also heavily focused on developing technological education. The Ministry of Manpower currently manages seven technology colleges: the Higher College of Technology in Muscat, and six others in Salalah, Nizwa, Musanna, Ibra, Shinas and Ibri. The first of these – established in 1984 as the Oman Technical Industrial College but renamed in 2001 – is one of the largest providers of training in Oman, with 7300 students enrolled in its various programmes. The regional colleges were opened in 1993.
The college in Muscat has grown rapidly to enrolment of nearly 12,000 in 2012/13, from just 200 at its founding. Set on about 49,700 sq metres of land and with more than 600 faculty and staff, the college offers courses under its English language centre and seven academic departments: engineering, IT, applied sciences, business studies, pharmacy and, more recently, photography and fashion design.
All seven colleges of technology have undergone the Oman Academic Accreditation Authority’s audit process, the last one having been completed for the Ibri College of Technology in June 2014. Data show enrolment at these at 31,261 in 2012/13. Many higher education institutes have also adopted e-learning programmes for professional training, and non-degree training programmes are growing more popular. The Polyglot Institute’s IT training lab, for example, is currently training nearly 1000 students in IT skills. The Sultan Qaboos University has set up a Centre for Educational Technology, which has recently committed resources to rolling out e-learning services at each of its nine colleges.
Another entity involved in rolling out IT training services is Oman’s Information Technology Authority. This entity oversees the National IT Training and Awareness programme, which is designed to help train state employees in basic IT knowledge on the job. As of 2011 some 45,000 people were trained through the programme, a figure expected to have more than doubled by end-2014.
The private sector is also taking note of the opportunities in vocational training. The National Training Institute Oman, for example, is a major player in training staff for the oil and gas sector. Set up in 1985 by a local Omani group, the institute grew rapidly and was acquired by Babcock International Group in 2014, marking the group’s first entry into Oman. The institute notes that the country’s large population and Omanisation drive are the key engines of growth in the vocational training sector. The technical and managerial training provided by the institute is concentrated in the oil and gas sector, but construction and manufacturing are growing segments. This is partly driven by public investments in large-scale infrastructure projects. A related industry, logistics, is also growing and has significant potential for private sector establishment of training centres.
Despite the potential, the training industry faces steep challenges in Oman. Locals overwhelmingly demand the security of public sector jobs, and thus are slow to take on the private sector jobs for which training centres prepare people. The consequent shortage of available hires is helping drive up salaries in the private sector, which in time should attract more candidates. “If employment in the private sector were as attractive as the public sector, more Omanis would be incentivised to develop their personal and technical skills and become more entrepreneurial,” Lawrence Alva, CEO of the National Training Institute Oman, told OBG.
Another challenge is the gap between the job markets and the education system. Students with high school degrees often do not have the basic skills required to enrol directly in training programmes. To solve this, companies like the National Training Institute Oman structure their programmes to include intensive basic language and skills training. Students gearing up for entry-level jobs, for example, take a six-month course in language and communication before enrolling in a 12-month training programme. Higher-end technical jobs require a medical or engineering degree followed by two years’ training in the classroom and two years’ on the job.
Other institutions offer training courses in specific subsectors. One of these – the International Maritime College Oman, based in Sohar – was established to meet the demand for skilled labourers in the maritime industry. Courses aim to train students in logistics, shipping and more technical subjects like petrochemicals processing. “Developments in the regions outside Muscat are increasing the demand for Omanis who are trained in maritime, transport, shipping and logistics,” the college’s dean, Hilal Ali Azzan Al Hadhrami, told OBG. “As things now stand, the education sector cannot keep up with demand.” The college currently has an enrolment of more than 1800 students, with plans to raise this to around 3000.
Besides investing in centres of training, the government is supporting vocational and technical training through education grants. Public stipends may cover up to 70% of the cost of studying at private technical and vocational institutions, with a limit of OR1200 ($3107) per student in technical fields and OR1000 ($2589) in administrative fields. While Oman still has a long way to go in meeting Omanisation targets, its comprehensive and systematic strategy for increasing the skills of the country’s workforce will continue to drive vocational training going forward.
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