Many years ago, I left school one December, with a guaranteed place at university for the following September, with the challenge of filling the intervening months in an interesting way. A common choice these days might be to go for a “gap year” of travel, roaming around a variety of countries to learn something about them. Back then, though, travel was not so easy, so I opted for something nearer to home.
Since there was a parliamentary by-election in the constituency in which I lived, I devoted the first months to learning the nitty-gritty of campaigning, from delivering leaflets to knocking on doors and the rest of it. Then I worked as a woodcutter, helping to clear the route for a new electricity power line, until the boss felt that my lack of skill with an axe was endangering both me and fellow workers.
Then, for a couple of months, I commuted daily by train to London to work in the offices of an insurance company. One lasting benefit was that I realised I never wanted to do anything like that again. This was followed by a bit of travel and a bit more politics. When I finally got to university, I was more mature than I had been as a callow school-leaver.
One of my first university friends, a girl named Helen, had opted for something markedly different, having found a job teaching English in a school in the Nigerian city of Abeokuta. She learnt what it was like to live and work in a completely different society, where other languages, values and cultures were the norm. She dealt with real challenges, in territory that was, at least initially, completely alien to her.
That experience of life overseas – not studying, but living and working – gave her not just invaluable experience, but enormous strengths.
She had thrived on it and when we began our degrees she was much more mature than I. She became one of my closest friends, and remained so, despite the geographical distance between us, until she died a few years ago.
I thought of Helen the other day when I was chatting with a senior police officer about the nature of police training and whether it properly equipped people to cope with the challenges of operating in our multi-cultural, multi-lingual society.
My friend told me that he had spent a month working with the New York Police Department. During that short period, he said, he had learnt an enormous amount that he would never have been taught here in college. How much more he would have benefited, we agreed, if he had been able to spend a whole year on secondment with NYPD.
The key benefits, we felt, would not have come from New York, as seen in popular film and TV presentations, as being a city rife with armed robberies, shoot-outs and gangsters, but rather from its diversity in terms of its population, its infrastructure and its widely varied challenges in terms of preserving, or trying to preserve, law and order.
The topic of the benefits to be gained from overseas experience, primarily following completion of university studies, is one that I have often discussed over the years, with ministers and senior government officials, with policemen, oil company executives, bankers, university teachers and others.
In very general terms, all have agreed that it would be beneficial, both for people and for society, if more of us living in the UAE spent time living and working in other countries. Studying overseas for one or more degrees is valuable, of course, not just for the qualification, but for the knowledge amassed there. So much more, though, can be gained by living, working and competing, with others, outside the confines of an academic environment. A secondment for a year or two or getting formal employment provides broader opportunities and greater experience.
In some areas, this already happens, of course, such as in the oil industry or banking and finance. We can see the benefits from that. Less visible, perhaps, may be the results from the time spent by Emiratis in foreign police forces, or, for that matter, in urban planning or even farming. In some areas it is simply impossible to make progress without working abroad. Space travel? Nuclear physics?
I would like to see more attention paid to encouraging the general principle of work experience overseas. Perhaps some of those unable to perform military service could be offered this option, although it should, of course, be a voluntary programme.
In some industries, perhaps it can be built more overtly into career paths. Perhaps more large foreign companies that export products to the Emirates could be encouraged to offer secondments or jobs. There will be a host of ways in which the promotion of overseas opportunities can be achieved.
There is, in my view, so much to be gained. The Emirates, we are told, is home to some 200 nationalities. All are welcome here. Learning more about their countries, their languages and their way of life could benefit us all.
Published: April 28, 2022, 8:00 AM
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There is a lot to be gained by working overseas