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CW 2018 Skills Gap Survey: Middle East construction staff want more

Experts weigh in on the surprising results of the inaugural Construction Week Skills Gap Survey, and the measures employers must implement in order to gain a competitive, knowledge-based market advantage

ANALYSIS, Human Resource

The results of Construction Week’s 2018 Skills Gap Survey have been compiled, and the findings are a stark reminder of the room for improvement in construction training and education in the Middle East. 

Between February and April this year, 132 construction professionals from the region participated in the survey, which aimed to understand the measures that employers are implementing to boost the qualification levels of their staff. The anonymous responses to the survey have been dissected by Construction Week’s editorial team to shine a light on the current state of educational advancement in the regional sector. 

It is important to know the demographics of our respondents in order to understand their comments: for starters, of the 132 respondents, 53% were from the UAE, and 11.4% from Saudi Arabia. Nearly half of the respondents were between the ages of 30 and 39, with only 15 of the total 132 responses being supplied by women. Forty per cent of the responses came from regional companies – which for the purposes of this survey, were defined as those operating across the Gulf, as well as the wider Middle East – and 30% of the respondents said their company only operated in one country. 

Quantity surveyors represented the largest category of professionals to respond to the survey, with their responses accounting for 47.7% of the 132 received. This was followed by consultants (23 responses) and contractors (19 responses). 

One statistic that might alarm some, is that nearly 72% of construction professionals believe their colleagues struggle to efficiently carry out their tasks, and only 33% of professionals said that their organisation provided training or professional development courses of some kind. Meanwhile, 61% said they had not received any training or professional development at all. 

In addition, although 86% of the 132 respondents said their educational degree qualified them for the job they currently hold, 54% of the total said they would enrol themselves in an educational programme – bachelor’s degree level or higher – that was relevant to their current job. 

Construction employers in the Middle East would do well to provide, directly or otherwise, platforms for their employees to further educate themselves. Not doing so, market experts warn, has drawbacks that employers should look to avoid. Emma Davies, human resources (HR) manager at UAE-based contracting giant, ALEC, explains how lack of skills development opportunities could lead to a skills gap in the regional sector. 

“Potentially, we could lose knowledge across the region as people retire and move home,” Davies tells Construction Week. 

“We need to ensure this knowledge is captured and shared with new members of our businesses and the sector. ALEC has worked with consultants and other contractors to ensure we share knowledge amongst our young professionals, but my biggest concern regarding a skills gap going forwards would be ensuring our future employees get to access the knowledge-sharing.” 

Group education and training sessions are an ideal platform to share knowledge and resources, but these too appear to be lacking in the region. 

Construction Week’s 2018 Skills Gap Survey found that almost 40% of respondents had not completed any training in the past year. 

A further 29% said they had received up to two training sessions during the past year, and only 5.3% said that more than 10 training sessions had been delivered by their organisation during the 12-month period.

Additionally, the results indicate that employees in the sector feel not only under-trained, but also under-valued: of the respondents that had received professional training in the past year, 37% said it was beneficial, and nearly 48% said it was not applicable. Those latter response, perhaps, alludes to the absence of opt-in training sessions that allow employees to tailor and personalise their study, or worse, to poorly prepared training courses – little more than box-ticking exercises on the part of employers – under the guise of employee development programmes.

More importantly, 66% of respondents said that their employers did not ask for feedback on the training that was provided, leading employees to believe that their feedback was not valued.

Robert Jackson, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors’ (RICS) director for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), tells Construction Week that companies must avoid the temptation to save costs by cutting out training initiatives: “It is clear that, as markets across the region become increasingly competitive, companies are looking to drive operational efficiencies to maintain or deliver increased profitability. However, rather than cutting budgets on initiatives such as staff training, the evidence is clear that, in fact, investing in employee learning and development has multiple benefits.

“Competency-based training can ensure employees are working to consistent standards and methodologies, thus driving up efficiency and productivity while also mitigating risk.  Recruitment is also an expensive business, and all leaders recognise that retention of good staff is a critical success factor,” Jackson adds. 

“The survey reinforces our view that staff retention is not simply a factor of remuneration, but more [about] whether employers are providing learning and development opportunities for their staff.” 

If, as an employer, you believe that your staff will stick by you despite the absence of training and development opportunities, then think again: 61% of those surveyed by Construction Week said they would leave their current employer and role for an alternative that offered better education, training, and development prospects, even if no pay rise were offered. 

Cheriyan Alex, chief executive officer of UAE-based groundworks contractor, National Piling, says he believes the Middle East lacks qualified training programmes. “The main issue is the lack of time and funds allocated for such activities,” he explains. “Authorities and construction firms’ leaders have yet to realise that quality training will raise the efficiency and the standard of the company.”

According to Alex, the construction sector in the region is still facing a number of critical issues when it comes to understanding the needs of its employees: “The Middle East still has a deficiency in skills and there are very few experts in this market,” he says. “The majority have learned the job as an assistant to someone who did not have a proper structured and dedicated training. So, this set of people should be referred to as a semi-skilled workforce, and accordingly, more than 80% of Middle East’s workforce would be semi-skilled. As construction is a big sector, the only way [to improve the situation] is through periodical training and evaluation.” 

While it is clear that there is room for improvement in the Middle East’s construction education sector, business leaders will find that numerous resources are available to help them to better educate and upskill their employees. 

For instance, in line with the UAE’s – and the wider region’s – ambitions to develop smart cities, an educational course was launched this April at the UAE’s American University of Sharjah to teach executives about the ways that artificial intelligence (AI) can be applied to smart city projects. Students are not required to have prior knowledge of AI, and the course has been designed for mid- to high-level executives from the region.

In Dubai, the first batch of engineers qualified in Sa’fat – Dubai Municipality’s (DM) Green Building Rating System – graduated this May, with the agency now targeting a wider implementation of the course. Fida Al Hammadi, head of the research and building systems section within DM’s Buildings Department, said the Sa’fat Certified Engineer qualification can be added to an engineer’s résumé after they have completed the programme, with the certification also ensuring an employee’s efficiency in the green building sector.

She added: “This [programme] includes two main categories, [the first of which is] professionals – the engineers working in the profession – and [secondly,] the young engineering students in the universities, who wish to develop their academic skills in the green building field.”

After all, as Sarah Willis, head of HR at WSP Middle East explains, construction is a demanding job, and its operational scope could “make it challenging to focus on personal development”, which is even more reason for employers to ensure they play their part in improving their employees’ skills. 

For example, WSP – which this year was ranked as the 13th Best Company to Work for in the UAE by Great Place To Work – focuses on providing “flexibility and diversity” in its learning and development opportunities. This includes offering easily accessible mentoring, online learning hubs, ‘lunch and learn’ sessions, team project visits, professional development roadshows, education sponsorships, and global exchange programmes, Willis tells Construction Week. 

Director of property and buildings at WSP Middle East, Dean McGrail, says the breadth of the company’s operations allows it to exchange knowledge across its global offices. 

“We continually assess our markets to ascertain where a skills gap might exist, not only in the Middle East, but globally. Then, we collaborate with our colleagues to fill these gaps by encouraging the global mobility of our people,” he tells Construction Week. 

“[This] constantly challenges the status quo, and will look to introduce this global skill into the Middle East market [through, for example,] our UK colleagues. Likewise, our people in the Middle East learn skills that are extremely valuable to our other global clients and businesses.

“Where else in the world can your people experience projects of the size, scale, speed of delivery, and complexity of the Middle East?” McGrail asks, highlighting the learning opportunities presented in the region not only for local construction professionals, but international ones as well. 

Indeed, some companies may want to use WSP’s initiatives as a benchmark to accelerate their training programmes, while others may want to customise their modules to suit their existing staff’s capabilities and demands. Either way, companies that are not already investing in skills development should look to self-improvement programmes to ensure their employees are not dissatisfied. 

This is critical, and not least because 53% of the respondents to Construction Week’s 2018 Skills Gap Survey feel their current place of employment does not offer any career growth opportunities. Companies vying for a competitive advantage in the market must first ensure that their workforce is not only ready to take on new challenges, but also equipped to do so. 

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