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Propel assesses the GCC’s recruitment landscape

Propel Consult’s directors, Barry Prost and Jamie Groom, tell James Morgan what the GCC’s construction sector must do in order to attract and retain the best talent

INTERVIEWS, Projects, Bahrain, Barry Prost, Construction sector, GCC’s recruitment, Jamie Groom, Landscape, Propel assesses, Saudi Arabia

During the past seven years, Propel Consult has grown to become Bahrain’s largest recruitment consultancy, with substantial interests in both its domestic market and Saudi Arabia. The company was formed in the Republic of Ireland in 2009 by directors Barry Prost (main image: left) and Jamie Groom (main image: right). The duo established their Bahraini headquarters the following year.

Today, this office acts as a base for an 18-strong team, 12 of whom focus solely on identifying skilled industry professionals within the fields of construction and engineering. Prost and Groom are currently in the process of staffing offices in Riyadh and Khobar in Saudi Arabia, and Dublin in the Republic of Ireland. In addition to a database of 400,000 prospective recruits, Propel’s portfolio includes Babsaudi.com, a job portal dedicated to the kingdom.

“Initially, Jamie and I were selling recruitment services into the Middle East from the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland,” Prost begins. “We soon realised that it would be far better to conduct our business from the Middle East, rather than sitting behind desks in London or Dublin.”

“Bahrain represented the ideal hub for us,” Groom adds. “From there, we could cover the entire Middle East, which was very handy.”

“There was less competitive pressure as well,” adds Prost. “In Dubai, we might have been one of 300 recruitment companies whereas, in Bahrain, we were one of two or three. It was also ideal because of its proximity to Saudi Arabia. That was a big selling point for us. Bahrain is perceived as being part of Saudi, in some respects [an annex]. It’s very close, whereas if you’re trying to sell into Saudi from the UAE, it’s more difficult.”

Initially, Propel’s primary focus was the Saudi Arabian job market, but the post-2014 oil price decline served to increase its activities on the domestic front. Groom explains: “In the past three years, our business has been split fairly evenly between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. We get some work in Qatar and the UAE, but we don’t really go looking for it. We’re very well known in Saudi now, and we’re the biggest in Bahrain.”

Prost continues: “We have one of the largest construction and engineering recruitment teams in the Gulf and, because we specialise in these fields, it gives us a competitive advantage. Our competitors simply don’t have as many [dedicated resources].”

Owing to this focussed approach, Propel has succeeded in securing an array of high-profile construction and engineering clients. The firm’s repeat client list includes the likes of Consolidated Contractors Company (CCC), Nass Contracting, and Aecom. Prost and Groom have also provided recruitment services for members of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s royal families, and several government ministries.

It’s fair to say that when it comes to construction and engineering recruitment in the GCC, few are better versed than Propel’s directors. So how would they assess the regional construction sector’s recent performance, in terms of attracting and retaining the best talent? Is there a dearth of qualified professionals?

“To a certain extent, yes – especially when we’re dealing with Saudi Arabia,” Groom replies. “Some people aren’t all that keen to go to Saudi because of the stigma that surrounds it, but it’s not as bad as people [think]. For a lot of people who we’ve [placed in the kingdom,] it works out really well.

“For recruits relocating from countries like Ireland and the UK for the first time, [Saudi Arabia] can be a little scary. Some decide that it isn’t for them, so they go back. We find it’s usually better to recruit people who are already based in the Middle East, and move them to positions in the kingdom. They tend to last a lot longer because they know what they’re getting themselves into.”

Prost comments: “Of all the countries in the GCC, I think you’re going to see the biggest change in Saudi Arabia – certainly from a social perspective. The country has already developed significantly during recent years, in terms of getting women into work, and I think that it will continue to change rapidly in the coming years.

“One of the things that Saudi is trying to achieve is to stop the leakage of money. [At present,] residents rush out of the kingdom the first chance they get, and spend their wages in places like Bahrain and the UAE. Saudi wants to retain that money, so the government is investing heavily in the local tourism market, trying to encourage the local population to [stay] inside the kingdom. Cinemas are on the horizon, women driving is on the horizon, so I think Saudi is the one to watch, socially.”

Regional efforts to encourage GCC nationals into the workforce are also having an effect on the construction-related recruitment landscape. While Prost and Groom acknowledge the need to pursue nationalisation targets, they also identify a two-pronged challenge: finding local recruits who are qualified to fill skilled vacancies, and convincing those recruits to embark on careers in the fields of construction and engineering.

“Each GCC government has a slightly different strategy, so nationalisation affects us differently depending on the market in question,” Prost says. “In Bahrain, for example, you have to look for a Bahraini national first for any position. Saudi, meanwhile, has its traffic light system, which [can sometimes seem like] a bit of a moving target. And there are Saudi-only positions.

“There is now a system in place wherein certain jobs must be advertised on the government’s website. Before you can hire an expat, the vacancy must have been advertised in the local market. That’s going to have an impact; it’s going to delay the [time it takes] to make placements because [employers will] be looking for people that – in some cases – they know they can’t find. Nevertheless, they will have to do it as an exercise.”

When qualified local applicants are present, the challenge then becomes to attract them to the private sector or, more specifically, construction and engineering.

“You’re never going to get a Saudi labourer,” says Prost. “The salary would be below the minimum wage. So in terms of the skilled positions, it’s a matter of education. [We need to create] graduate training programmes, identify potential candidates within universities, and recruit them [at that level]. Because, at present, the best Saudi graduates are moving overseas and, since they’re the people who are in demand, it becomes an even smaller pool.”

Groom comments: “The problem then is that policy-makers want to get Saudis into training positions – mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) jobs, for instance – but the necessary training facilities don’t exist. This is a problem that the industry is trying to address at the moment. We’re in discussions with a few clients with a view to establishing these facilities.”

Prost summarises: “There’s a lack of training and there’s a lack of [GCC nationals] who want to do these jobs. These issues need to be addressed.”

Even so, both Prost and Groom agree that for GCC nationals with the aptitude and attitude to forge careers in construction and engineering, the sky’s the limit.

“It’s not all negative,” Prost explains. “You see some really young Saudi professionals who are in very senior positions. [With the right mindset, it’s possible] to fly up the corporate ladder.”

Groom adds: “Women are also making significant progress in the kingdom. When I first went to Saudi five or six years ago, I didn’t see separate sections for women in the office. Now, there are loads of women working; they’re pushing very hard, and that’s another thing that the industry needs to recognise. Saudi needs to ensure that [female employees] are rewarded for the work and effort that they’re putting in, and I think this is happening more and more.”

But when it comes to the recruitment of expatriate workers, especially those relocating from the West, GCC countries do have cause for concern. Prost and Groom explain that, as the construction markets of countries like Ireland and the UK continue to pick up, Propel is being asked to identify skilled professionals that have been working in the Middle East and are willing to move home.

“This is a concern [for Gulf countries,] especially when it comes to people our age,” says Groom. “I know families in their 30s and 40s with children that are looking to go back. The younger generation – people in their early- to mid-20s – will probably stay because the money’s so much better. Similarly, people in their 50s may decide to finish their careers in the Middle East to get their money’s worth.

“But the GCC’s construction sector needs people in their 30s and 40s; these people have more experience than the younger generation, and a good 15 years of their careers left.”

Both Prost and Groom agree that construction and engineering firms could increase their likelihood of retaining talent by increasing access to professional development programmes. However, they are also of the opinion that, as GCC countries continue to implement taxation and reduce fuel subsidies in a bid to bolster national revenues, they must also work to incentivise expat professionals to stay.

“This shift has to happen, and I think we’re already moving in that direction,” says Prost. “[The current lack of citizenship] is a big factor in terms of retaining people because, ultimately, [expats] never feel like they really belong in the GCC. And I think that’s important for people generally, that sense of belonging.”

Groom adds: “In the Gulf, you’re a permanent guest, and I think that’s one of the reasons why people don’t stay for the long term. I think that Dubai will be the first place to offer [citizenship in the GCC]. I don’t know whether it would serve to attract a new wave of people [to relocate to the region,] but it would definitely help to retain those who are already here.”

That said, it’s encouraging to note that, while Propel’s directors have noticed a contraction in the market due to reduced oil prices, they have also witnessed an uptick in demand for new personnel since the beginning of the year.

“I’d say 18 months to two years ago, we felt the pinch – we really did,” says Groom. “However, this year has really picked up for us; we’re doing a lot better. Companies are refocussing on how they’re spending money. They’re trying to derive more value from their resources.”

With this in mind, Prost and Groom are now looking to increase the size of Propel’s workforce in both their domestic market and on the international stage.

“By the end of the year, we’d like to have two or three people in our Dublin office,” Groom reveals. “Between Riyadh and Khobar, I’d like to say we’ll be able to build a sales team of seven to eight people during the same period. And in Bahrain, we’d like to grow to around 25 people.

“We’ve taken overall office space for approximately 40 people because that’s where we see the business going. Again, Propel is the largest recruitment company in Bahrain [and it’s performing well in Saudi,] but things will only stay that way if we continue to grow,” he concludes.

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