The talent crunch: What are the most in-demand skills in the Middle East?

The swift pace at which modern technologies and business models are evolving, matched by an inadequate access to education for great sectors of the population, is causing a talent and skills crunch in economies and organisations around the globe

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According to US-based consulting firm Korn Ferry, by 2030 the demand for a skilled workforce will exceed supply, possibly resulting in an overall global talent shortage of more than 85.2 million people.

The Middle East is not exempt from this skills crisis. If not addressed, major markets in the region such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, could miss out on US$14.46 billion and US$25.80 respectively of unrealised output by next year. 

A decade later, these figures could rise to US$50.55 billion and US$206.77 respectively, according to the consulting firm’s predictions.

Additionally, the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Human Capital Index, an indicator of how global economies develop their human capital potential through skills and education advancement, noted in 2016 that the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region was three points below the global average for realising its full human capital potential.

A young but not fully skilled population

The MENA region as a whole has one of the youngest populations in the world, placing it in an advantageous position for economic growth. However, too many young people lack the skills required in medium to highly qualified jobs.

Youth unemployment remains an important issue in the region, with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimating its rate at 28.2 percent in the Middle East and 30.5 percent in North Africa.

Despite being an increasingly well-educated population, the WEF says that more tech skills are needed in the region, in particular more science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and information and communications technology (ICT) skills.

Although 29 percent of the Middle East’s tertiary-educated workers have graduated with a qualification broadly in the field of engineering, manufacturing and construction, only 13 percent have studied subjects related to IT.

Another issue is that industries that are growing on skills demand, such as financial services, insurance, government and non-profit, are not being fulfilled by these graduates, who tend to go to traditional sectors that require a ‘know-how’, like oil and gas. 

This growing demand in white-collar jobs is particularly noticeable in the UAE, where recruitment specialist Robert Half says that in 2019, “the most in demand professionals will include IT security analysts, systems administrators, personal assistants, as well as those with qualifications and experience in accounting and finance professionals.”

Other recruiters point at data scientists and analysts, project managers, digital and cybersecurity experts as skills currently highly in demand, and likely to remain so in the foreseeable future.

The impact of Industry 4.0

The fourth industrial revolution, also known as Industry 4.0, is also having a critical impact in defining which skills are most sought after by employers in manufacturing industries such as petrol, chemicals, clothing or food production, to name just a few.

Although the current trend of automation is severely hitting the low-skilled workforce, it is also creating a wide range of highly-skilled jobs which although in demand are insufficiently covered due to their relative novelty. 

Forty-one percent of all jobs in Kuwait are susceptible to automation, according to WEF estimates. This figure rises to 46 percent in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, 47 percent in the UAE, 49 percent in Egypt, 50 percent in Turkey, and 52 percent in Qatar.

Jobs that are in demand as a result of automation include data analysis, computer science and engineering, in well-established industries across the Middle East such as oil and gas, aviation, transportation and healthcare. 

The WEF claims that there will be a strong demand for professionals who can blend digital and STEM skills with traditional subject expertise, such as digital-mechanical engineers and business operations data analysts, who are capable of combining deep knowledge of their industry with the latest analytical tools to quickly adapt business strategies.

The international organisation also asserts that there will be more demand for user interface experts who can facilitate seamless human-machine interaction.

The case of the healthcare sector

A sector which is particularly suffering from a skills shortage across the Middle East is healthcare. The medical and research industries are two areas where the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region is experiencing difficulties in finding skilled workers. 

Despite the expansion of healthcare facilities and the region increasingly becoming a medical tourist hub - especially in the UAE - the nurse/doctor to patient ratio remains low, and most managerial positions are still occupied by male candidates from Western backgrounds. 

A reason for this shortage in managerial jobs within the local workforce is that these positions now require IT skills, as well as business and strategic leadership, which are not always met by domestic candidates.

What can Middle East countries do to bridge the skills gap?

In their research report ‘The Skills Gap in the Middle East and North Africa’, YouGov and job portal Bayt.com found that 42 percent of respondents found that “companies providing enough training opportunities to employees” would be the best solution to bridge the skills gap in the region.

The measure was followed by “better cooperation among various stakeholders - companies, educational institutions and governments” (at 40 percent), and “providing students with the skills they need to enter the current job market” (39 percent).

Bridging the gender gap in the workforce would undoubtedly help the skills gap and favour economies as a whole. According to WEF data, Egypt alone could increase its GDP by over 34 percent if it closed the female employment gender gap, while the UAE could increase it by over 12 percent. 

Other ways of confronting the skills gap across countries in the Middle East could be addressed by developing strategic investments in high-skilled sectors such as IT, finance or healthcare.

Scholars Froilan T Malit, Jr, and George Naufal, advise that carrying out “more comparative pilot studies to analyse the repercussions of skills on long-term labour productivity, wages, and mobility in the long run”, increased labour market data and qualification frameworks, and “coordination between origin and destination countries to harmonise their skills recognition systems and qualifications” could significantly help towards bridging the gap.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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