Compensation levels and a lack of awareness about higher professional qualifications are the major roadblocks towards attracting and retaining Emirati talent into the accounting and finance sector, industry experts say.
At a breakfast briefing, jointly conducted by the Dubai Financial Services Authority (DFSA) and the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW), experts from both the government and private sectors debated the best ways to combat the minimal interest shown by the Emiratis in the financial sector.
“Compensation levels at the big four globally are so much higher than what is being offered locally. It totally hits you in the face when you begin to look for a job,” said Khaled Al-Zaabi, manager in the supervision division of DFSA.
Drawing from his personal experience during his university days in the US, Al-Zaabi said that equalising the levels
of salary offered to graduates will help spread a more optimistic attitude among the students thus attracting top talent. However, the lure of higher salaries along with shorter working hours and more holidays still draws the bulk of Emiratis into a public sector career.
A recent study by recruitment firm Gulftalent.com found that 86 per cent of Emirati males and 66 per cent of females would prefer to work in the government sector after graduation.
“Salaries are low in the beginning [in the accounting sector] but it pays off in the long run. I see it as an investment,” said Mohammad Zamani, an employee of KPMG and a candidate of ICAEW Emiratisation scholarship programme, which aims to attract more Emirati youth to accounting sector.
A career beginning in an accounting firm is usually slow with modest salaries and long working hours that fructifies after a few years. But compared to the dazzling salaries and benefits given to Emiratis on a public sector job, a career in accounting falls short in terms of both pay and the amount of working hours.
Ahmed Al Maqtari, managing partner of Al Maqtari Auditing said: “Short term rewards (like money) are more attractive for the Emirati youth. Accounting is a well-respected profession and there is absolutely no awareness among the Emiratis about the higher professional qualifications like the CPA and chartered accountancy.”
Unlike in the west, the kudos surrounding a career in accounting is generally absent in Emirati culture and this could be a dissuading factor in opting for an accounting career, the panel agreed.
Jeanette Vinke, senior lecturer in American University of Sharjah, emphasised the importance of spreading awareness among the Emiratis saying, “Often it is the parents or peers who influence a graduate’s choice of a major thus awareness is an issue.”
Al-Zaabi reiterated that there has to be a change in how the industry is perceived within the region.
“If we can change the perception (about the industry) and elevate the status of the profession then we might be able to attract smart and local talent,” he said.
“An auditor does not have the level of importance in the community as does an engineer. If it is engineering, especially in the oil and gas sector, then one starts at a good level and your career is set, leading to a predictable path.”
Zamani said that promoting the potential of a career in finance and accounting could help lure more people into the industry.
“Public sector cannot absorb all the graduates and it is important that there is awareness,” he said.
Many accounting firms in the UAE support Emiratisation schemes with training programmes, but find it difficult to meet the exorbitant salary expectations of UAE nationals.
Anis Sadek, lead client service partner at Deloitte, believes that private firms can pay large sums to a small number
of people to attract talent but that is not going to solve the problem.
Sadek agrees that the right thing to do is to make the prospects more attractive, of which increasing compensation is only one part. He added that companies would need government support to provide higher salaries to Emiratis.
“At the end of the day, we are a business and we are not short of applicants but we would like to give the local talent a fair chance. It is imperative to bring in Emirati talent, as leadership should come from the local level. It (Emiratisation) is something that we do, not because it is imposed on us, but it is what we want to do,” he said.
Al-Zaabi, however, said that hesitation on the part of the Big Four firms to hike salary levels to global levels is a major setback for attracting and retaining Emirati youth. “We are not asking them to match the salary levels to public sector, but only to match the global salary trends,” he said.
Vinke, though, advocated a salary raise akin to public sector.
“Compensation remains a problem and even if we match the salaries to public sector we still might not see a score of Emiratis. But even having just 10 in an auditing firm is enough,” she said.
Vinke agreed that the finance industry needs to get the government involved if it is a strain to hike the salaries but should definitely meet the students’ expectation.
These measures should definitely stem the influx of Emiratis into the public sector and help abate unemployment among the Emiratis. Unemployment in the UAE is currently estimated at 14 per cent.
“Expats make up a majority here and the government might want to attract Emiratis, who are a minority, towards the public sector. So we (private and public sector) are competing for a small pool of people and the competition is fierce,” said Sadek.
Sadek admitted that the financial sector has not been adept at competing in attracting the best talent and said he hoped to see more public-private cooperation in pushing through ambitious Emiratisation schemes.
All experts agreed that it’s highly imperative that Emirati youth become ingrained in the financial field.
“It is important that Emirati leadership be well educated in professional finance,” said Vinke, highlighting the importance of national youth taking the reins of finance for long-term societal benefits.