The best and brightest

With Middle Eastern skylines expanding at record pace,recruiting the best and brightest design professionals is crucial. Jeff Roberts talks to Ummar Yousaf, architect and principal of UK-based the interview room, a recruitment and career consultancy, specialising in the building industry.

Yousaf works with several multinational firms incl
Yousaf works with several multinational firms incl

With Middle Eastern skylines expanding at record pace,recruiting the best and brightest design professionals is crucial. Jeff Roberts talks to Ummar Yousaf, architect and principal of UK-based the interview room, a recruitment and career consultancy, specialising in the building industry.

What is the status of recruitment in the Middle East? Are numbers climbing or falling?

Recruitment in the Middle East is still a huge challenge for the companies who are seeking to recruit design staff into their organisations. It is an exceptionally busy marketplace and the world's attention, in terms of construction and the built environment, is keenly focused on the region.


Construction in the Middle East is fast, unrelenting and driven by clients who demand the best, as quickly as possible. Too many new architects in the Middle East fail to consider the crucial ability to deliver a building.

Whilst the firms are always seeking to bring talent into their teams, their difficulties are multi-fold, but tend to revolve around two key issues: the lack of quality candidates with appropriate skills and capabilities; and candidates who have unreasonable expectations.

Numbers are still climbing, but the dynamic has shifted from a high supply of lower quality candidates to a more select choice from a higher quality candidate pool. In the last 3 months, the numbers of architects seeking to relocate to the Middle East has exploded, particularly those from the Western economies.

What factors are luring architects here?

Individuals relocating to the Middle East are attracted by 'exciting' projects, the chance to get involved in 'iconic' design and, most importantly, a tax free income in what is becoming one of the world's best known holiday destinations.

Many of those that approach us claim to want to progress their career, work abroad and develop professionally. In the end, we always find that the defining factor is salary. There are some exceptions but, unfortunately, not many.

So what does a practice do when faced with that kind of a resourcing problem?

The simple fact is that there are not enough resources to do the work that is currently planned or underway in the region. The volume of work is staggering, and architects from around the world are taking advantage of it.

We manage expectations, measure motivations, and address incorrect perceptions. We introduce those who we feel will contribute to the firms objectives, and avoid those who we feel are looking to take advantage of the market.

Practices are being more rigorous in their recruiting strategies but any recruitment methodology is only as effective as the retention strategy it works with.

Finance driven incentives such as deferred bonus schemes that reward loyalty and family based benefits packages, are as important as the productivity-based SMART appraisal programmes and professional development initiatives.

What skills are most transferable to the Middle Eastern market?

Each firm has its own set of values and corporate culture but there is one overriding factor that every new recruit needs to pack in his suitcase: the ability to deliver a building.

Whatever sector or set of skills an architect brings-theatre design, transportation or hospitality design, landscape and urban design, REVIT, LEED/BREEAM, are all current favourites-they are all in demand.

The capabilities particularly sought are design and coordination of high-rise buildings, experience on large projects of over US$100million, delivery of a building on site, and the ability to mentor, teach and lead large teams of staff.

Are you finding problems with clients adjusting to culture or context once arriving in the Middle East?

There are always innumerable challenges to relocating an individual-or a family-to a new environment. We advise all our candidates who wish to relocate to the ME to visit beforehand, to take a short holiday to explore locations for a few days.

This minimises disappointment or misplaced expectations, and once this has been done, individuals can make a much more informed decision about the location, environment, culture and expectations.

Is bringing more ex-pats into the Middle Eastern market detrimental to preserving the context of the region?

Ex-pats coming into the region aren't detrimental to preserving the context of the region at all. There is some fantastic work by local ex-pats who have lived and worked in the region for years.

Until recently the architectural profession in the local markets around the Gulf has been severely limited in their scope of design excellence, innovation and technical advancement.

If anything, the talents of ex-pat architects in the Middle East has created some of the most recognised icons in the region-Dubai Creek Golf Club and the Burj Al Arab are two golden oldies that spring to mind.

Which international firms are growing most rapidly or recruiting most heavily?

Our client base ranges from small boutique design firms in Singapore to major firms in London or Paris. We have worked with more than 70% of the world's largest design firms and most, if not all, of these are currently involved in the ME.

Woods Bagot is an excellent example of a practice who has adapted internally to allow a quick but careful expansion of their business, engaging the best possible individuals for their new studio headquarters in Abu Dhabi.

Another very well-known and long established local firm, following the traditional multidisciplinary consultancy model, is Cansult Maunsell. They take a very agile approach to increasing and improving their skill base and talent pool.

Generally speaking, are Western architects playing instrumental roles in the greening of the region?

Yes, the knowledge and skills of Western architects will be invaluable on two fronts: not only do they apply the correct methodology of eco-friendly design at the correct stage in the process, but they also engage with the local teams to mentor and teach the skills that are needed for future generations of architects and design professionals.

Many of our clients in the region are struggling to find the specialist technical design skills required by their schemes, whether MEP, facade and technical or design related.

How do the needs of the Middle East market compare to those in India, China and Russia?

In India or China, unlike the Middle East, there are vast pools of design professionals, but largely lacking innovative design and management skills to compete at a global level.

Clients still turn to the English speaking and European architectural practices in their pursuit of innovative concept design. In India or China, it is rare to find large numbers of design or technical staff being employed from non-local markets.

Strong and competent English language skills are a key factor in working across the Middle East, Russia and India, and even most parts of Asia. However working in mainland China will require some knowledge of Mandarin to be able to live there successfully.

What advice would you give to architects looking to relocate to the Middle East?

A few pieces of advice spring to mind. First, be prepared for the unexpected and be prepared to learn fast.

Second, understand the process, be patient, and organise yourself well. It shouldn't be just about finding a new position at the best possible salary. Consider the needs of your family and the life you leave behind.

Third, do your research, and then do some more. Be realistic in your expectations and don't assume that because your friend earns double your current salary that you will too.

Fourth, don't expect to be rubbing shoulders with Zaha, Foster or Nouvel on their latest masterpiece. Your first project is more likely to be a 'normal' low or mid-rise residential complex, school or commercial office block.

Last, a recruiter's advice can be invaluable, but be sure to check their credentials and ask for references.

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