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Life lessons: it's never too early to start work experience

As I was scrolling through my Instagram for the fifth time before I slept I saw a meme that was all too familiar.

The meme was of an interviewer saying: “We are looking for someone between the ages of 22 and 26 with 30 years experience.”

It made me laugh as it brought back memories of job rejections after graduating from university due to my lack of experience. It made no sense.

I will always remember thinking how I was supposed to get job experience if every job required job experience. A real head scratcher that kept me up many nights waiting for my father to ask me the next morning when I was going to get a job. “Well it’s pretty simple Dad, when I get job experience.”

Looking back I really had myself to blame because I hadn’t been proactive in my approach to learning or developing on-the- job skills beyond my vocational training. For some reason the “rule book” was school, university, then work, in that order, with little to no overlap. I had the impression that work, or formal employment in any shape or form, came after university – not during or before.

As I go around the UAE to lecture at various universities I always ask students to raise their hands if they have done an internship. Unless they are in their final year and about to graduate they rarely raise their hands. Why? I ask. Well, they say, job experience is a requirement from the university in their final year of university in order to graduate. I then ask about all the summer and winter breaks before that. They have the same baffling look I did when I was in university. “We can do that?”

Yes you can, and you should.

When I first went to university one of the greatest disadvantages I had compared to my western counterparts was their knowledge of the working world.

Many of them had held summer jobs from as early as high school. They mowed lawns for their neighbours. They worked weekends at local cafes, restaurants, or family businesses. They interned for free at different companies where they were interested in learning about the industry – even if their main responsibility was ensuring everyone’s coffee order was correct.

All that mattered was that they were learning and gaining knowledge in an area of work where they saw their future.

My best advice to students at this stage is: “Don’t make the same mistake as me and wait to gain experience. Go out and seek it, regardless of how young you are.”

In 2011 the Government put in place a law that allowed teenagers as young as 15 to work under certain guidelines and with permission from their parents. My eldest son is seven years old and he is on his PlayStation as I write this column. I am letting him enjoy it because when he reaches 15 McDonald’s will be getting its newest part-time employee.

I want to instil a value in him – and his brother – which is, in terms of money and experience, crucial to success. He should not wait for a job to be handed to him but rely only on himself for growth, learning, and development. He will learn valuable lessons like time management, working in a team, building a work ethic, and, overall, just being mature and responsible. It will give him a strong sense of confidence to make his own money at a young age, a sense of independence to build his own future.

We are reaching a stage in this country where being proactive in our approach to work, gaining experience, and creating value is going to be the strongest characteristic on our CV – beyond our grades and certificates.

Where jobs once came easy through Emiratisation initiatives, I believe it will be more challenging in the future, and the young women and men who will be ready are the ones who didn’t wait until a certain age to get started: those who went to work on building themselves so that they could better serve their country in the future.

Khalid Al Ameri is an Emirati columnist and social commentator. He lives in Abu Dhabi with his wife and two sons.

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