How can construction firms appeal to young Omanis?

Most acknowledge the long-term benefits of Omanisation in construction, but an array of challenges must be addressed first

ANALYSIS, Projects, Leaders in Construction Oman, Oman, Omanisation

It has been more than two decades since the Omani government launched its Omanisation plan – one of the national priorities implemented to provide employment for all nationals who enter the job market every year. The Omanisation plan is not only about ensuring places of employment for local citizens; it also aims to reduce the Sultanate’s traditional reliance on expat workers.

The key stumbling block for firms eyeing nationalisation quotas is that Omani nationals, who are expected to make up 30% of any one company’s total workforce as per the country’s Omanisation initiative, have an unfavourable image of the construction sector. At present, around 44% of Oman’s population consists of expatriate workers.

Most of Oman’s population is made up of young people who are available and ready to work – but very few show interest in pursuing a career in the construction industry.

Speaking during a nationalisation panel at Construction Week: Leaders in Construction Summit Oman 2015, Simon Karam, chairman of Al Taher Group and director of Sarooj Construction Company, said that the construction industry’s main challenge is to attract the younger generation.

“It is very difficult to convince a young Omani to work in the construction sector – and those who do are often only interested in working in certain categories,” he explained.

“One of the main challenges we face in terms of increasing the number of locals in the sector is the fact that most see construction as labour intensive, and for this reason, the industry does not appeal to many Omanis. “Whether this notion stems from tradition, or from various other factors such as peer status, the government and private sector can both agree that at present, Omanisation has not achieved the level of success that was hoped for,” Karam continued.

Contractors across the spectrum in Oman agree that there is a dearth of essential construction talent in the country. It could be argued that the 30% Omanisation target has yet to be achieved because contractors are struggling to find locals who are qualified to carry out the work and meet the needs of their clients.

Speaking alongside Karam at the conference, Adel Merhi, vice president and country manager for Oman at Hill International, said he believes it is only a matter of identifying interested Omanis, pointing out the significance of sourcing the right skills to meet Omanisation targets.

“Having qualified Omanis is a critical element,” he commented.

“You can’t just recruit locals, no matter how good your intentions are, unless they’re qualified to do the job. Availability of workers at different levels is still a major problem facing the construction sector in Oman.

“The Omanisation targets set by the Ministry of Manpower for the sector is 30%, but we don’t have that many Omanis who are willing to work in the sector and are equipped with the correct qualifications and skillsets to secure employment in the industry. This highlights why the current nationalisation targets are unrealistic and unachievable at present.”

Recruitment in Oman has hit a roadblock due to nationalisation targets being higher than what the country can achieve, according to GulfTalent, a job site for professionals in the Middle East region. To mend this gap, it is crucial that an attitude and culture change is adopted with regard to Omanisation in the country’s private sector.

Robert Holtkamp, chief executive officer of National Aluminium Products Co (NAPCO), said the implementation of a rewards scheme would go some way towards achieving this culture change: “We are working to create a platform, where, if you do well you get rewarded.

“It doesn’t, however, just come down to rewards. It’s also about achieving good working relations and providing motivational and effective training. We are trying to create a culture where the local people can say they are proud to work for our company.”

Creating a culture that increases the productivity of Omani workers comes down to finding ways to entice them to attend work and share in the success of the company, Holtkamp added.

“By increasing the productivity and revenues of our company, we have created an incentives programme, which helps,” he said.

“But employers also need to respect their employees and be fair with them in order to create that successful working relationship,” Holtkamp continued.

“Respect, I believe, can go a long way to providing workers with the motivation to remain committed to their job, and of course to [their employer]. Omanis need to be motivated and this can be achieved by providing them with a progressive career path.”

Employers are keen to hire qualified and experienced professionals who possess a strong work ethic. However, Omani nationals often come with very little of the required experience, and lack knowledge of work ethics, according to the panel.

David Hutton, country manager for Oman at Aecom, commented: “Some Omanis lack the motivation to work and are renowned for leaving their place of employment after just a few months, often for as little as a few riyals more in their pay packet. If we can find a suitable national to employ, he often works for six months and then leaves the job. It seems they are not ready to work for long periods of time.

“This work ethic without a doubt needs to change, but it is not something I envisage changing any time soon. When I recruit, I look for someone who is an investment for the future – and currently, Omanisation doesn’t present any of these benefits.

“This is where the education system could come in to play. Omanis need to be taught about work culture and career progression from an early age in an attempt to make them eager to strive for success in the work place.”

Clearly, while sourcing the required quota of nationals to meet Omanisation targets presents itself as the primary problem, retaining Omanis in the workplace is proving to be equally as hard. Nationals are often perceived to be driven by financial benefits, but NAPCO’s Holtkamp said he believes these kinds of incentives only go a short way towards ensuring retention.

“Omanis need to know there is a clear career progression programme in place that they can aspire to follow,” he said.

“Without this, they often lose interest in attending work. I would therefore argue, that motivation and respect [are] as important, if not more important than the financial aspect. Highlighting the career opportunities available and how these can be achieved is a vital element of ensuring Omani employee retention.”

The Omani government is working to instil the ethos that Omanisation is extends above and beyond the present, and will benefit generations to come. Contractors that have a higher percentage of Omanisation have a better chance of gaining project wins, and spending money to achieve that target will pay off in the longer term.

Nevertheless, employers in the construction industry still strongly believe that the target should be lowered to a more achievable level.

“Yes, Omanisation may not be about now – yes, it is about looking to the future,” Karam said.

“However, it is crucial that a realistic target which the industry can achieve is set. It is evident that Omanisation is currently not working in our industry, and I think it is fair to say that a lower target would be welcomed by all companies in the region. A lower target could go a long way to help establish the right attitude and culture to overcome the challenge that Omanisation currently presents.”

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