Middle East supplement: local heroes

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The front page of Etihad's staff magazine for March carries a story and picture about the first six Emirati cadets to gain their air transport pilot licence. The six male pilots were the initial intake into the 18-month course launched in 2007 and designed to get more UAE nationals on to the flightdeck. As second officers, they will now complete simulator training before becoming first officers on the airline's Airbus A320 fleet in about six months' time.

A total of 55 UAE citizens, including two women, have joined the programme, which involves 750h of classroom tuition at Etihad's training facility as well as 205h flight training in single- and twin-engine aircraft at Horizon Flight Academy in Al Ain, Etihad's sister company. The next cohort of 12 pilots graduates this month.

"As national airline, it is vital we have UAE citizens working in all areas of the company"
James Hogan - Etihad chief executive" 

Etihad's "Emiratisation" initiatives also include training schemes for maintenance engineers and managers. Chief executive James Hogan says: "As the national airline of the UAE, it is vital that Etihad has UAE citizens working in all areas of the company, so to have our own home-grown pilots in our ranks is fantastic."

The airline - which has a staff of 7,000 projected to grow to 27,000 by 2020 - has also been attending recruitment fairs throughout the UAE to persuade Emirati youngsters to consider a career with the flag carrier. Dr Salwa Al-Noaimi, vice-president recruitment, says: "Recruiting Emirati talent is a priority at Etihad."

The airline's rival, Emirates, also runs an established cadet scheme for would-be Emirati pilots that helps it meet Dubai government targets, set at 500 this year, for employing nationals across all areas of its business. Fifty Emirati cadets are going through the programme, which involves flight training in Adelaide, Australia, and 22 are already flying as first officers, mostly on the A330-200 fleet.

Although it has relied almost exclusively on expatriate staff to fuel the rapid growth of its young business, Qatar Airways has its own scheme to bring Qatari nationals into senior roles. It runs Qatar Aviation College, where 200 students are taking courses in flying, flight despatch and engineering.

"From an engineering perspective, it is the airline's quasi-apprenticeship scheme, but focused specifically on Qatari nationals," says Rosemary Fagen, executive vice-president human resources. Although most Qatari women do not work, the airline employs a number of female nationals in various roles across flightcrew, engineering and management training, but no women are employed as cabin crew.

At Bahrain's Gulf Air, 25 apprentice engineers recently began a two-year training course, sponsored by the government. Bahrainis also figure strongly in many of the airline's back offices, with its accounts departments "100% Bahrainised".

It is a myth that the affluent countries of the Gulf do not have social problems and unemployment. Although the popular perception is of Rolex-wearing, Mercedes 4x4-driving young Arab men about town - and there are many in the hotel lobbies of Abu Dhabi and Dubai who fit that image - there are bedouin and other communities, often in the smaller emirates of the UAE as well as the other Gulf states, where the wealth has not permeated.

But the challenge facing the airlines is persuading bright school-leavers and graduates to become pilots, engineers or aviation executives when so many other financially-rewarding and prestigious careers are available in commerce and the oil sector.

"There's only a relatively small pool of 10-12,000 eligible individuals and we have to fight against the finance, telecommunications or oil and gas industries to attract them to Qatar Airways," says Fagen.

Etihad's executive vice-president operations, Capt Richard Hill, says: "It can be a challenge to find Emirati school-leavers who want to be pilots. We can't always compete on salaries. You have to find people who really have a passion for aviation."