Raising recruitment standards in the Middle East

We hear from recruitment specialists how higher labour standards can improve the quality of GCC’s new recruits

SPECIAL REPORTS, Sectors, Construction, Construction industry, Engineering, GCC region, Middle east, Recruitment

By all estimations, 2016 looks set to be a busy year for the GCC’s construction industry. Uncertainty surrounding global oil price estimates – and their impact on local construction work – will keep the region’s engineering professionals on their toes next year, particularly in light of how these fluctuations might alter employment economics in the GCC.

Experts across the regional human resources industry agree that a shortage of appropriate candidates currently exists in the construction sector.

Online recruitment portal, GulfTalent, said in September 2015 that while firms have eased down the pace of their hiring activities, skilled construction professionals are still in demand, UAE’s Emirates24x7 newspaper reported.

Niall Hughes, senior consultant for construction at recruitment firm Morgan McKinley, reveals how the numbers currently stack up for the GCC.

“From speaking to clients across the GCC, Saudi Arabia leads the way with the highest number of construction engineers or contractors [employed], followed closely by the UAE and then Qatar,” Hughes tells Construction Week.

“From our perspective, Qatar is still hiring the most number of workers, but we are also seeing a lot of work in Saudi Arabia, predominantly with master developers and main contractors. The UAE continues to see steady demand, but it is easier for companies to attract talent to the [country] directly,” Hughes continues.

“Interestingly, whilst Oman is a relatively small market, we’ve seen demand [for professionals from] the interiors sector, with a lot of projects headed towards completion.”

Mohammed Jindran, managing director of Overseas Labour Supply, believes the construction market is broadly unaffected in terms of its appetite for workers; however, it is the region’s smaller contractors who appear to be implementing cutbacks in their hiring activities.

“The large clients we work with have major ongoing projects, and they continue to recruit from us,” Jindran tells Construction Week.

“We see a difference these days in the demand from smaller contractors, who’ve had hiccups in the last few months, possibly due to oil prices and regional disturbances.

“We’ve noticed they’re now choosing to hire on a sub-contractor basis than for the long term,” Jindran adds.

Construction activity, Jindran continues, is being driven predominantly by the private sector, even as regional public sectors continue to invest for development. He believes this could be one of the knock-on effects of global oil uncertainty.

Hughes concurs, adding: “Generally speaking, ongoing projects have not been affected [due to oil prices], and a lot of PPP projects are also proceeding. However, new project awards are not being made at the same pace as before, which is an effect of the declining oil prices. Skill shortage is a major challenge for the labour market, and it is something that [can’t] be resolved overnight. Many markets in Europe and the West are improving as is the economy in India, so employees have choices now.

“While the UAE in particular remains an attractive destination for people to work in, the fluctuating oil prices combined with the regional conflicts in Syria and Yemen is dampening demand a little, with some projects on hold. However a lot of projects that were awarded pre-2015 are going ahead as planned,” Hughes continues.

Morgan McKinley’s data suggests civil engineers remain in demand regionally due to sizeable infrastructure investments in the GCC, with Qatar and Saudi Arabia demanding the highest professionals in the sector. The region is also in want of project managers and quantity surveyors.

“There is no one area that would stand out as not in demand,” Hughes says.

Guy Rickett, CEO of Cazar, a recruitment software firm, estimates recruitment activity to increase by 5% in 2016.

“The GCC remains the most dynamic region worldwide when it comes to construction,” Rickett says.

“This is fuelled by business and leisure tourism as well as mega projects including the King Abdullah Financial City in Saudi Arabia, Al Maktoum International Airport and Expo 2020 in Dubai, Oman’s rail plans, Qatar’s metro network and many more.

“However, finding high skilled talent – architects, civil engineers, and senior project managers – is going to become increasingly challenging,” Cazar’s Rickett tells Construction Week.

“Many of these professionals are expats who have misconceptions about the region. As the economies elsewhere in the world recover and big projects roll out, this pool of talent will have an even greater choice of companies to work for.

“GCC employers will have to ramp up the marketing efforts when it comes to attracting high end candidates. The positive thing is that some of the most exciting projects in the world are being planned here – so with the right recruitment strategy and tools, they can achieve their recruitment objectives,” Rickett adds.

Perhaps the most critical and effective marketing effort the region is implementing to attract foreign workers is upgrading its labour laws.

The UAE, generally considered the leader amongst the GCC in terms of labour conditions and legislation, has introduced three new labour rules, set to take effect as of 1 January, 2016.

The new rules relate to the application of ministry-approved contracts, conditions for terminating employees and granting workers labour permits to work for new employers, Gulf News reported.

Elsewhere, companies in Kuwait will no longer be allowed to withhold employees’ passports following implementation of the new labour laws being written in the country, according to Arabic daily Al Shahed.

Under Kuwait’s planned new law, employees still would be prohibited from leaving the country without the approval of their sponsor and written travel permit from the newly established Public Authority for Manpower (PAM). The authority, which was established to help better coordinate labour and expatriate issues, also is reportedly close to finalising a new labour contract, to come into force at the beginning of 2016, according to Arabian Business.

Speaking about the UAE’s new labour law, Hughes says: “I think the new labour laws in the UAE will be a positive step and should make things more transparent for both employers and employees.

“From an employee’s perspective it should mean they are able to upskill and move to better employment over time and whilst some employers may have some concerns, it should give employers easier access to talent.”

Providing a GCC-wide review, Hughes adds: “Qatar’s amendments to its labour laws in respect to payment of salaries [Wage Protection System] may place an initial administrative burden on employers, but it is another positive step for employees.

“I think the main qualms employers have is with laws changing regularly which are difficult to keep on top of,” Hughes adds.

Jindran says contractors often cut costs through sub-standard labour conditions, which he deems “very unfortunate”.

“Some companies do slip up and fall short of the requirements as per the labour law,” Jindran says.

“Satisfaction levels have gone up in the UAE, for instance, but there is still room for improvement across the region. Qatari firms are under a lot of pressure from the government and other organisations, and the government is trying to change the situation, but companies are yet to catch up,” he continues.

Jindran insists the UAE’s labour market is helped by firms complying with standards, which contrasts with Qatar, where the “mind-set is still accustomed to the Kafala system”, he says, adding: “Despite facing pressure, Qatar hasn’t met the benchmarks [of labour conditions], so there is room for improvement. Even today, workers who enrol themselves at our offices in Nepal and India pick the UAE as the first preference to work in, because they know that the conditions are much better here.

“The satisfaction levels in Qatar aren’t too high, so the UAE still gets first preference,” OLS’s Jindran says.

Rickett claims reforms are also needed in the mid- and high-level employment market. “Once someone is hired, it could take months for paperwork, visas and everything else to get sorted,” he says.

“This ‘onboarding’ period is very sensitive because they [new employee] might have second thoughts, questions, doubts, and so on. You’d be surprised how many new hires drop out at this point. That is why there is a new trend nowadays whereby employers do their best to keep them engaged in the process by continuously communicating by phone, email, and more recently, through specific websites dedicated to new employees.

“It reassures the new recruits, and keeps them enthusiastic so that they don’t drop out,” Rickett concludes.

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