Haji bin Faqir Mohammad Al-Balushi is an Omani national born on April 2, 1961.
He has been the General Manager of the National College of Automotive Technology (NCAT) since 2014.
He holds a master’s degree in Educational Administration (Master of Arts) University of Bath – United Kingdom in 2003.
With more than twenty-five years of professional experience, he has worked in various fields including training and teaching, executive, supervisory and leadership positions in the sectors of education and vocational training.
Haji’s professional experience extends to ensuring the quality of vocational training and education, and he also worked in the field of studies and research in terms of manpower planning.
As the General Manager of the National College of Automotive Technology and the former General Manager at National Automotive Higher Institute LLC, you have held key leadership roles in educational institutions. Could you elaborate on the strategies or initiatives you have implemented to drive innovation and improvement in the educational and training programs under your leadership?
Haji Al Balushi: Let me begin by outlining our mission, vision, and goals. Our strategy aligns with government objectives and encompasses various sectors, including government, military, security, and private companies within the automotive, transportation, and logistics industries. Our mission is to inspire and support these organizations while creating employment opportunities for young Omanis. We supply the market with engineers, skilled technicians, including master technicians, as well as specialists. Our focus revolves around these three sectors.
In addition, we have a vision to become a pioneer and distinguished education and training provider, both locally and regionally, with a global recognition of our qualifications. Our objective is to meet the market demand and supply the labour market with 1,500 engineers, skilled technicians, master technicians, and specialists in the automotive field. Currently, our annual capacity is set at accommodating 400 students and trainees, with a total capacity of 780 to 800 individuals on campus. The overall capacity will eventually reach 1,400, with two-thirds studying within the institutions (college and the Institute) and one-third gaining practical experience in the workplace.
Currently, there is a shortage of more than 50,000 workers in the automotive sector, ranging from skilled technicians, to master technicians and specialists.Haji Al Balushi
Our training program combines on-site and off-site learning, reflecting our strategy to enhance Omanisation in the automotive and transportation sector, in line with Oman’s Vision 2040 and the five-year plan spanning from 2021 to 2025. Our primary aim is to increase the workforce’s share in the workplace to 40%. This strategy centers on creating jobs in this sector to address the skills gap.
Now, regarding innovation and improvement, the college has been diligently addressing the challenges of building future capabilities and competencies for modern skills and technology in higher education and vocational training. We have two distinct streams, higher education, and vocational training. We have been developing these capabilities since 2015 to ensure they align with the evolving requirements of the automotive skills needed in the labour market.
The shortage of skilled and talented young individuals in this sector is a significant challenge. Currently, there is a shortage of more than 50,000 workers in the automotive sector, ranging from skilled technicians, to master technicians and specialists. The reason for the shortage of workers in the automotive sector is that the working conditions in this field are not yet attractive enough for Omani individuals. Addressing this challenge is a key focus area for us, and we are collaborating with various stakeholders and partners to improve and enhance the work placement opportunities in the sector. However, achieving this goal requires significant efforts from various government organizations and stakeholders.
“Despite the changes in vehicle ownership patterns, the automotive industry is experiencing a steady growth trend. These factors show the significance of the sector and the need for innovative solutions, particularly in attracting young talent.”Haji Al Balushi
Furthermore, there is a broader challenge at play. Finding qualified and competent engineers, skilled technicians and master technicians in the automotive field has become increasingly difficult, not just in Oman but also on a global scale. This shortage is indicative of a skill gap that extends beyond our borders, affecting countries like industrial countries.
This skill gap can also be observed in countries like the UK, Germany, Japan, Korea, India, and others worldwide where the workforce is struggling to keep up with the rapidly evolving automotive technology. In the past, most technicians and mechanics primarily dealt with conventional and traditional mechanical issues in cars. However, from the 1980s onwards, digital complexities started to emerge, and since the year 2000, cars have undergone a complete transformation, embracing autoelectronics. Even a standard passenger car now boasts 26 to 28 processors, with luxury vehicles often having 100 to 120 processors, essentially functioning as individual computers for various car functions. This technological revolution necessitates a new breed of skilled technicians and master technicians capable of handling these innovations.
Also, the total number of vehicles in Oman has surged to 1.6 million, a figure that only includes passenger cars and commercial vehicles, excluding military and security vehicles. This growth in vehicle numbers has led to an increase in vehicle registrations over the last three years, averaging a remarkable 9 to 10 percent. Additionally, the economic landscape has influenced vehicle ownership, with individuals and government entities extending the lifespan of their vehicles from the previous five years to seven or even ten years.
Despite the changes in vehicle ownership patterns, the automotive industry is experiencing a steady growth trend. These factors show the significance of the sector and the need for innovative solutions, particularly in attracting young talent.
NCAT also plays a pivotal role in fostering innovation in society by equipping graduates with critical thinking, creativity, and innovation skills.Haji Al Balushi
In all sectors, innovation and improvement are essential, and the National College of Automotive Technology (NCAT) recognizes this. Rather than focusing solely on quantitative expansion, NCAT is committed to bringing about qualitative changes in education and training. These improvements are evident in our enhanced facilities and upgraded qualifications.
NCAT also plays a pivotal role in fostering innovation in society by equipping graduates with critical thinking, creativity, and innovation skills. We achieve this through effective teaching methods and practices, including entrepreneurship education, which we have already implemented.
In addition to these efforts, we are launching a pilot project to train young Omanis (male and female) as freelancers in the automotive sector, with an initial group of 50 candidates in collaboration with the Ministry of Labour and Musleh. This initiative aims to create opportunities for this industry.
So, to reiterate, NCAT’s smart innovation strategies revolve around providing education and training that encompasses not only conventional automotive technologies but also the latest generations of cars, including electric and hybrid vehicles. These strategies are integral to our strategic plan as we continue to evolve to meet the dynamic needs of the automotive sector.
NCAT’s goals include contributing to comprehensive national economic and social development programs. How does NCAT actively contribute to Oman’s national economic and social development programs, and what positive outcomes have been observed as a result of these contributions?
Haji Al Balushi: NCAT has graduated more than 1000 students and trainees from 2015 to the present. They are employed across various sectors, both in governmental and private organizations. Initially, our graduates faced challenges typical of any institution, where we primarily educated and trained them in-house and at the workplace.
When they entered the real world of the work environment, they encountered experienced skilled mechanics, technicians, or specialists working as advisors, possessing anywhere from five to twenty years of experience. Naturally, the productivity of these experienced professionals was significantly higher than that of our recent graduates. To address this, we initiated a feedback system from the labour market during and after the training and education processes.
“We also emphasized practical experience because knowledge alone, without real-world application, falls short.”Haji Al Balushi
Market feedback indicated that our students and trainees did not meet the required standards, prompting us to collaborate closely with our stakeholders and partners to enhance our curriculum, delivery methods, and techniques within the college.
We restructured our programs to align them precisely with industry needs and set a target for our strategy: achieving 80% productivity for our graduates. While we recognized that reaching 100% productivity was not achievable, aiming for 80% was attainable. This was achieved through partnerships with various stakeholders, periodic competency assessments, facility upgrades, and the adoption of industry-relevant technologies.
We also emphasized practical experience because knowledge alone, without real-world application, falls short. To accomplish this, we periodically restructured our organization, setting performance criteria for each team, unit, and department. These criteria had to be met, but they also required guidance, mentoring, and in-house and external training. We made the best use of our facilities for training, as we are primarily an education and training provider.
The college emphasizes improving the teaching and training environment in the college. Could you review the steps that have been taken to enhance the learning experience and support the professional development of faculty and staff?
Haji Al Balushi: We have implemented three specific strategies for developing our staff. The first is what we call “transformative engagement.” We actively seek partnerships to find solutions that not only advance our graduate conditions but also enhance our education and training programs.
Additionally, we focus on leadership and innovation. Our goal is to equip our staff with the skills necessary to develop our trainees and students and foster their engagement in leadership and innovation. We firmly believe that success is a mutual endeavour—when we give, and you give in return.
Furthermore, we have a strategy centered around performance excellence and optimizing human and physical capital. Our aim is to elevate our performance and operations to a level that meets the demands of the labour market, particularly satisfying our clients, partners, stakeholders, and, naturally, our shareholders. Collaboration plays a significant role in achieving this, particularly in shaping workplace culture.
These five pillars of strategy guide our teaching staff as they continually strive to enhance our core business, which is providing the labour market with well-prepared young Omanis possessing the right skills and knowledge.Haji Al Balushi
In some cases, when our staff members enter the workplace to evaluate our students or trainees during on-the-job training, they find that the work environment does not meet our expected standards. Therefore, we encourage our staff to engage with workplace supervisors and negotiate for improved conditions. This may include ensuring a clean environment and providing students or trainees with the necessary tools for their safety.
We have observed that issues with workplace conditions are more prevalent in lower-classified companies, particularly in the fourth and fifth classes. As a result, improving workplace conditions is one of our collaborative efforts.
Lastly, we emphasize responsible scholarship and impact. When we develop our teachers or trainers, we encourage them to serve as models for teaching and delivering training. We urge them to take a broad perspective, ensuring that our graduates are not only competent in Oman but also capable of competing and working in neighbouring countries or on a global scale. Our goal is to enable them to compete effectively with others in the international job market.
These five pillars of strategy guide our teaching staff as they continually strive to enhance our core business, which is providing the labour market with well-prepared young Omanis possessing the right skills and knowledge.
With regard to your students, how would you describe or envision their future prospects or opportunities for your graduates?
Haji Al Balushi: This is an area we consistently monitor as it is ever-evolving. As I mentioned, we have a vision of reaching out to the job market. When we approach any workplace, whether it is a garage or a workshop, we hope to encounter an NCAT graduate who welcomes me and proudly states, “I am from NCAT. Do you recognize me? I graduated from NCAT. This is my domain, and I can offer my assistance and expertise.”
Our goal for our graduates is to see them excel in the future. NCAT not only equips them with a qualification but also provides a license, enabling them to compete effectively with non-Omanis in the same field or sector.
When we assess job opportunities, they appear to be quite promising. This is in line with Oman’s vision, aiming to have 40% of Omanis in the workforce in the future, particularly within the private sector. Currently, there are approximately 90,000 employees in the automotive sector, with less than 20% being Omanis. Our strategic objective is to gradually increase this percentage. When we first established this institute, we aspired for a 65% Omanization rate. However, upon further consideration, we realized that this might not be feasible due to intense competition.
“We aim to prepare these young Omanis not only for conventional vehicles but also for the emerging trend of electric and hybrid cars.”Haji Al Balushi
Subsequently, we adjusted our target to 40%, and then further down to 60%. Ultimately, we concluded that focusing on achieving a 66% market share would be a more realistic goal. This would be an excellent achievement, given the large number of job opportunities available. Our analysis of demand indicates that we should strive to supply the market with 1,500 young Omani professionals specializing in the automotive field. We aim to prepare these young Omanis not only for conventional vehicles but also for the emerging trend of electric and hybrid cars.
Oman is among the countries with a commitment to enhancing its green environment. To achieve this, we need environmentally friendly vehicles on the roads. While it may take time, especially since many industrialized nations have set targets for adopting these vehicles by the end of 2030 or 2040, they are now reevaluating these goals, considering the continued competitiveness of oil prices. In the meantime, conventional cars, often referred to as existing technology, remain popular choices for consumers.
As this report centers on bolstering the bonds between Oman and Saudi Arabia, have you, at any point in the past, actively pursued collaboration or attempted to tap into the Saudi market? Did you ever envision that some of your students might eventually venture into the Saudi market?
Haji Al Balushi: Within NCAT, we have established not a separate division, but rather a distinctive focus on two significant aspects. Firstly, we aim to attract international students to NCAT. Secondly, we are consistently exploring avenues to attract new investors to invest in our institution. The intention is there but as of now, we have not specifically targeted the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
In truth, we have not yet made explicit overtures to any of the GCC countries. There have been some informal efforts in the past, characterized mostly as individual initiatives. For instance, we engaged in dialogue with Qatar and also with the UAE. We initiated discussions with the Dubai government when they expressed interest in inspecting our facilities and exploring the possibility of having technicians seconded here for a defined period to enhance their skill sets. Qatar had a similar initiative, though not in the form of students joining under parental or government sponsorship. Instead, it revolved around student services. We have already established the requisite statements and bylaws to facilitate such arrangements for international students or candidates and potential investors, but we have not taken concrete steps yet. For the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries, we would need to embark on marketing efforts and seek suitable partners.
Our ultimate goal is to equip our graduates with the skills and technology necessary to work across various technologies. It is an ongoing endeavour.Haji Al Balushi
I believe that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has a similar institution, albeit one that is more specialized, particularly focusing on Japanese cars. That institute, I believe, is a joint venture between Japan and Saudi Arabia. However, NCAT stands apart in that it caters to every brand and every type of vehicle in the automotive market as a whole, rather than specializing in one specific type of vehicle. We have devised both short-term and long-term strategies in alignment with the government’s vision. Innovation holds a central place among these strategies, aiming to enhance our curriculum and qualifications. Our ultimate goal is to equip our graduates with the skills and technology necessary to work across various technologies. It is an ongoing endeavour.
As you may be aware, being an educational institution in Oman, similar to others, particularly in the higher education and vocational training sectors, poses various challenges. One of these challenges is the high prevalence of trends and opportunities, contrasted with low levels of acceptance, be it from companies or individuals. The automotive sector, for example, is seen as an attractive field, yet encountering acceptance remains a significant challenge.
What do you believe is the underlying cause of this stigma?
Haji Al Balushi: The origins of this stigma are still being examined. Let me clarify. When young individuals embark on their educational journeys in various institutions, their initial emphasis tends to lean towards the development of soft skills rather than a focus on demanding hands-on skills.
They tend to gravitate toward not physically oriented job roles but toward clerical jobs. In this college, when we summon job applicants, we conduct placement tests and aptitude assessments. The aptitude test is designed to discern who is suited for clerical job roles and who is better suited for hands-on jobs. Most often, we find that the majority prefer clerical work. This inclination is rooted in human nature. For individuals inclined towards physical work, they come here if they have an interest.
Ideally, this should not be the case. When you are a child, especially for males, the first toys our parents purchase are either a ball or a toy car. So, motivation should be instilled from childhood. However, it seems that something is amiss. I believe the workplace environment in urban areas is not as appealing. It also requires government efforts to establish new standards and criteria for job placements, particularly in garages and related fields, to make them more enticing. I did mention that over 1,000 students have graduated from this institution, particularly in vocational competencies. Out of these, approximately 23 have ventured to open their own garages or businesses, either individually or as a group, which is a positive sign.
“Tortunately, the government is staunchly supporting human resources development, providing funding for training job seekers and allowances.”Haji Al Balushi
This is a promising indicator. Nevertheless, I reiterate that market trends and opportunities in the automotive industry are significant, but they demand innovative solutions. One such solution involves the government’s active participation. The government must engage with stakeholders and emphasize the necessity of harmonization. Regarding the vision set in the past, aiming for 66% of the workforce to be Omani and 33% non-Omani, it is currently quite the opposite. By the end of 2025, our target should be a 40% Omanization rate. This pertains to our sector.
Additionally, the government must collaborate with partners and stakeholders to improve the working environment in this domain to pique more interest, not only among job seekers. Raising the standards and establishing criteria for workshops, garages, spare parts sales, used car sales, etc., will compel them to operate within a harmonized framework. This, in turn, will prompt them to seek out entities where they can recruit and develop young Omanis, train them, and equip them with the necessary skills. Fortunately, the government is staunchly supporting human resources development, providing funding for training job seekers and allowances.
Recently, we held an open day and invited our stakeholders and partners. We also brought in our ambassador graduates and encouraged them to speak, not us. They shared their experiences and competencies acquired. This strategy, characterized by cooperation and innovation, is what we are striving to achieve at NCAT.