Speaking at a panel discussion in Dubai, executives from Amana Contracting, Arcadis EC Harris, Laing O’Rourke, Al Tamimi & Company and recruiting firm GulfTalent, stressed that hiring had slowed but not stopped.
The award of new construction projects in the region has reduced since public sector spending has come under pressure from lower oil prices.
However, previously awarded projects were continuing without impact, they stated.
Hence the construction sector faces a continued need for skilled staff across most roles and specialisations, although at a more moderate pace than a year ago.
A recent report by Deloitte found that the value of planned construction projects or those that are underway in the Gulf region is estimated to reach $172bn in 2015.
That figure is the highest on record till date as the Gulf countries continue to spend on infrastructure projects, the report said.
The forecast was set against a backdrop of lower oil prices, continuing political unrest and reduced International Monetary Fund growth prediction.
An earlier study by Ventures ME found that construction projects with a combined value of $67.6bn were completed across the Gulf region in 2014.
According to the panel, the United Arab Emirates is the easiest market for hiring expatriate talent, while Saudi Arabia is the most challenging.
While the Gulf region remains an attractive destination for jobseekers, media coverage of conflict in parts of the Middle East has heightened perceptions of regional risk among some potential candidates, some employers reported.
Others also pointed out that the rising cost of living in the region, especially housing and school fees, in addition to the recent cuts in subsidies (in places like the United Arab Emirates), is becoming a hurdle to attract good talent.
Challenges were also reported in filling up vacancies due to restrictions on employment of certain nationalities in parts of the Gulf region.
Employers said that while they could switch to alternative sources of talent over the long run, they found it particularly challenging when such policy changes were introduced at short notice.
On the other hand, firms also faced problems when looking to hire local talent, especially in countries like Saudi Arabia and Oman where nationalisation targets are higher and are most rigorously enforced.
Along with a general shortage of skilled engineers in the region, most Gulf nationals also had an ‘inaccurate’ image of the construction sector, they said.
“For many young people, their image of a career in construction is someone pouring concrete on a hot day, whereas in reality our roles are much more diverse. The private sector, the industry associations and the governments all need to work together to change such perceptions,” one speaker stated.
The panel also complained that the region’s construction sector was not investing sufficiently in the development of young talent. This was driven by the extreme competitiveness of the market and high price-sensitivity of clients.
The ‘project-based’ nature of the construction business in the region made it even harder to plan for the long term.
Hence many construction firms rely heavily on rapid hiring of experienced staff on a ‘just-in-time’ basis when they win projects, trimming down staff numbers quickly when projects come to an end.
By Aarti Nagraj
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