Market for specialist skills in GCC is heating up

Plenty of jobs, but times have changed in more ways than one

ANALYSIS, Business, Contractor, Gcc, Recruitment

Whether or not construction levels are back to the heights of 2008 is open to debate, but there is no doubt the sector is in a healthy state and continues to gather momentum.

This means plenty of jobs, but times have changed in more ways than one.

Candidates are more selective and financial demands are higher, but companies are seeking people with experience of working in the region.

Managing consultant, FM/contracting/technical/oil & gas for Charterhouse, Tom Loseby, says the market for recruiters “is certainly challenging”.

“Companies are also looking for the most experienced, driven staff and in my view that won’t change, but what is certainly noticeable in the last 12 months is that clients are much more interested in candidates with regional experience,” he confirms.

Charlie Parish, operations director, Hays, agrees, adding that employers “ideally (want candidates) having a minimum of 12 months experience working in the region”.

“Due to the previous construction boom, contractors are still able to secure candidates from the region, or those who have previously worked here,” he continues.

Despite this, due to the specialist nature of the infrastructure sector, contractors are more open to hiring specialist engineers, contracts managers, project/construction managers etc. from outside the region for heavy civils projects such as highways, utilities, airports, power and rail.

And this need to recruit from outside of the region will gather pace thanks to new regulations, says Shahzad Sadan, GM of organisational development at Oman-based contractor Al Hassan Group of Companies.

“Contractors are looking for experienced manpower and in particular those that have GCC experience for their operations. However, in the near future, this trend will change because of scarcity of experienced manpower and also because of laws that are being enforced.”

Sadan believes labour laws “should be friendlier”, and that there should be a greater focus on “fuelling the growth of the country".

“Also, the availability of experienced technical personnel should be improved so that recruitment and mobilisation can take place faster,” he adds.

Patrick McKinney, regional area manager for BAM International, agrees that hiring processes could be much smoother.

“The terms and conditions of a contract are too onerous on the contractors – this needs to change,” he asserts. And he also says that it is becoming harder to source the right talent to fill available positions.

“(There is) greater demand I suppose, but also the calibre of staff required is also greater,” argues McKinney.

“Projects are secured on tight margins, programmes are very demanding and buildings are becoming ever more complex.”

Jason McGowan, director of ICP Gulf Dubai, has noted a need for specialists.

He acknowledges that “it's an exciting time to be working in the market” and that there are still plenty of candidates around the GCC region.

“But as things progress here, we will see more of a struggle to secure people and salaries increase as companies battle it out for the best candidates”, he adds.

“Companies prefer a candidate to have experienced the unique challenges that a certain type of project can present, they look for similar project experience – whether it is a high rise tower, a five star-plus hotel, a palace, high end villas, experience in a certain location etc,” he continues.

“This can also include project size, as managing a $2.5bn building project is a lot different than managing a $25mn fit-out project.”

The company has also noted an increase in demand for Arabic-speaking candidates, for a lot of mid-to-senior roles.

Of course, what can be said of the industry in the UAE is not necessarily the same as in Qatar, Oman or Saudi Arabia.

Loseby notes that UAE immigration, relocation and the overall process of recruitment “is very straightforward”.

“However challenges are certainly prevalent in Qatar and Saudi Arabia based around No Objection Certificates and the procedures required to change employers,” he argues.

McGowan concurs, adding that the UAE “remains the easiest and most proactive area to recruit people, place people and work in the business of construction recruitment”.

“Other areas such as Qatar and KSA, with their more difficult and less liberal set-ups, remain more frustrating, slower and more difficult to do business,” he adds.

McKinney highlights the lack of school places as a concern for those bringing families to the region and Parish expands on this, adding that Saudi Arabia can be difficult from the perspective of securing permanent visas.

Moreover, due to the difficulty in obtaining No Objection Certficates from previous employees to secure candidate moves in Qatar, “this means that nearly all recruitment has to be external, which adds to the costs accrued by contractors when in hiring mode and having to bring talent in from overseas”.

Sadan confirms the difficulty in finding the right candidates and says there are many reasons for this.

“Some of them – it’s their expectation in terms of remuneration,” he begins.

“Very few candidates are willing to work in remote locations on single status [visas] and most of them look forward to family visa status.

“Further, the experienced manpower which we look for in the GCC is mainly recruited from India and Pakistan. The economic conditions in both those countries have improved and hence the remuneration offered earlier is no longer attractive.”

The challenges don’t end there.

Building contractors are now much more specific with their requirements – particularly with senior positions that often need client approval.

“Most also insist on candidates having a minimum Bachelor’s degree, which can prevent suitable candidates with proven technical experience who are ideal for the position not being able to be considered, despite having 20 years-plus experience,” Parish continues.

“Once the UAE building sector moves through the gears from 2015 onwards, this will put added pressure on securing suitable candidates for the likes of KSA and Qatar, who haven’t had to compete with the UAE for talent until now.”

McGowan says the challenges arrive every year and are “part and parcel of this region of the world” and indeed acknowledged by decent contractors as a business cost.

“Visa issues, restraints on certain nationalities in some countries and language needs present barriers to filling certain roles,” he says.

“On occasion candidates can be unreliable, disappearing from the area without trace,” he adds.

It can also be a struggle trying to get candidates to leave the desirable location of Dubai to go to work in other territories, such as Qatar or Oman.

Other challenges include “battling the constant rising salary expectations; sourcing certain types of highly sought-after or extremely scarce people; and the rising costs of living in the region".

But McGowan believes the next few years will see an increased demand for people “up to a peak level within two to three years” and return to a more sustainable market for the next five to 10 years.

He also predicts a return to volume hiring of candidates from outside the Gulf with no previous regional experience due to “high demand to fill roles with well-qualified professionals quickly”.

McKinney also expects demand to remain quite high.

“These will be good years for the recruitment business,” he says. “Contractors are being forced to increase their staff numbers significantly on all projects due to the increasing fast-track nature of works.”

Of course, in the background are thoughts of both Dubai’s Expo 2020 and the FIFA 2022 Qatar World Cup, Loseby says. Yet Parish warns that while the next four years “look like being buoyant times for contractors”. In order to attract the best talent, “they will need to look at offering other family benefits aside from salary, such as school fees [or] bonuses if they are looking to be competitive in their recruitment plans”.

“Furthermore, those who are able to be more flexible on where they hire from will be able to staff their projects quicker and ultimately avoid costly project delays in the long run,” he adds.

And there is a final warning from Sadan, who says the availability of technical personnel prepared to work in remote oil and gas fields on a single status visa “will come under pressure” if company policies with respect to remuneration and leave are not substantially improved.

This is something Loseby admits is a challenge and while stating the UAE is an “excellent proposition” for candidates with its lifestyle and ease of employment, there are issues for some candidates, including the potential instability of other Arab nations.

Challenges do remain and there will have to be some give and take from both sides to make the most of the opportunities available.

But as an overall picture, the immediate future of the construction sector looks bright for employers, recruiters and potential employees alike.

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