Recruitment issues continue to plague construction companies across the region. Ahead of the MEED Construction Leadership Summit in Dubai on 27 May, MEED spoke to the heads of major construction companies operating in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region, and many said recruiting and retaining employees with the right skillsets is their greatest challenge.

GCC nationalisation quotas
Country Percentage of total workforce
Saudi Arabia 5-21 (depending on the Nitaqat category the company has reached)
Qatar 20 (declared by a 1997 Emiri decree covering all private sector companies)
Kuwait 15 (under a 2008 ministerial decree)
Oman No specific quotas in the construction sector, but the overall workforce is about 30 per cent
Bahrain No official quota, but companies with fewer local employees are charged higher fees
UAE Secretarial and human resources roles must be filled by UAE nationals
Source: MEED

There are several reasons behind their concerns: finding people with appropriate skills, experience and knowledge; holding on to those staff in a competitive market; fulfilling nationalisation quotas, particularly in the GCC; and, from a longer-term point of view, ensuring enough school leavers in the region and internationally pursue higher-education routes that will qualify them to work in the construction industry after they graduate.

A 2013 study by UK recruitment consultancy Towers Watson cites research that “expatriates have a fundamentally different relationship with foreign employers than with those in their home countries, as manifested by lower long-term commitment abroad”. It adds that “having too many expatriate workers negatively affects a country’s stock of human capital over the long term”.

In the shorter term, too, there are challenges to recruiting from abroad. “To us, recruiting qualified staff and managing all logistical issues that come with recruiting, including securing visas, continues to be our biggest challenge,” says Louay Khoury, president and CEO of Bahrain-based Projacs International.

Contractors’ predictions for hiring in 2015
Company MEED spoke to Expects to hire Roles
CH2M Hill Neil Reynolds, senior vice-president and regional managing director 4,200 people by 2020 Engineers, project managers and subject matter experts
Habtoor Leighton Group Elias Zraicat, executive general manager for UAE, Oman and Northern Gulf 10-20 per cent Various positions to accommodate new projects
Laing O’Rourke Mark Andrews, regional managing director 1,000 people All levels, from operatives and tradesmen to project directors
Louis Berger Tom Topolski, executive vice-president and managing director, Middle East and North Africa 300 staff Project managers and directors, quantity surveyors, estimators, resident engineers
Mercury Mena Adnan Mian, president and CEO More than 5,000 direct staff Multiple roles
Mott MacDonald David Cox, regional managing director 300 staff (15 per cent increase) Oil, gas, power and infrastructure sectors
Projacs International Louay Khoury, president and CEO 50-70 Engineers (all disciplines) and project managers
Source: MEED

Those firms that are doing well against their nationalisation quotas are justifiably proud; they are not only developing the human capital of the markets they operate in, but are also building up a dedicated talent pool within their organisations.

“We are also seeking to offer rewarding careers to local talent,” says David Cox, regional managing director for the Middle East and South Asia at the UK’s Mott MacDonald. This has been particularly successful in Oman, where nearly 30 per cent of our workforce is Omani.”

With oil prices low, there may be a rationalisation of government spending in the medium term. But massive infrastructure projects such as the Riyadh Metro are gathering steam, along with projects tied to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and the 2020 Expo in Dubai. This means there will be increased competition for resources in the region, including skills.

It will take time before enough locals are trained in the right disciplines to fill enough of the roles the region will require. And until then, construction contractors will have to go fishing abroad.

David Cox: Regional managing director, Middle East and South Asia, Mott MacDonald

Recruiting at a fast enough pace from the pool of available talent to support our growth ambitions is our biggest challenge. Right now we’re looking for an additional 300 staff, an increase of about 15 per cent across our oil and gas, power and infrastructure sectors.

Finding the right staff is critical to our continued success. Indeed, globally many consultancies have reported a skill shortage, and encouraging students into engineering continues to be a big challenge for the industry. As a result, competition for staff remains intense.

We are also seeking to offer rewarding careers to local talent. This has been particularly successful in Oman, where nearly 30 per cent of our workforce is Omani.

David Welch: Regional president, Europe, Africa and Middle East, and senior vice-president, Bechtel

One challenge facing the industry is the resources that are required by contractors and consultants – namely equipment, materials, and people – in order to meet the needs of huge programmes within each country.

We are utilising our regional and global procurement expertise to bring resources to our projects in a  timely manner.  For the longer term, we are also building local capacity in the markets where we are present.

Tom Topolski: Executive vice-president and managing director, Middle East and North Africa, Louis Berger

What is the biggest challenge facing the business over the coming year and how will you tackle it?

If we don’t have the right talent at the right time, the cost can be in the form of missed opportunities and dissatisfied clients, which will have an impact on our growth strategy, ultimately affecting our bottom line.

We want to be known in the industry within the region as an employer of choice. One of our strategies is the ability to attract and retain high calibre talent, providing a competitive advantage for Louis Berger.

Roughly how many people will you need to employ?

For our projects in the region we will need 300 professionals, including project managers and directors; quantity surveyors; construction supervisors; estimators; resident engineers; and many more.

Louay Khoury: President and CEO, Projacs International

What is the single biggest challenge facing your business over the coming year?

To us, recruiting qualified staff and managing all logistical issues that come with recruiting, including securing visas, continues to be our biggest challenge.

To meet this, we are improving on our human resources capabilities and recruiting methods as well as hiring and training locals to meet the localisation quotas. We estimate, as per our budget, that we need this year 50 to 70 additional staff members, mainly engineers (in all disciplines) and project managers.

Adnan Mian: President and CEO, Mercury Mena

What is the single biggest challenge facing your business over the coming year?

Talent, talent and talent. We need talent that can be trained from the infancy stage of their career on basic management and engineering skills, lean thinking and innovative ideas.

Training is critical to our operations and will be the single largest differentiator for successful companies operating in the region.

With our current and forecast workload, we’ll be recruiting in the region of 5,000-plus direct staff.

Neil Reynolds: Senior vice-president and managing director, Middle East, North Africa and India, CH2M Hill

What is the single biggest challenge facing your business over the coming year?

Talent is a big challenge for us; finding, hiring and retaining top talent in a very competitive marketplace is our greatest challenge. We are all fishing in the same pool.

Making the right investment in talent will pay off: career paths mapped to employees’ succession plans; stretch goals; more empowerment; new staffing markets; hiring more local nationals through partnerships with universities in accord with government requirements; and working with foundations such as the Emirates Foundation (CH2M Hill is partnered with the charity) supporting this effort.

Roughly how many people will you need to employ this year?

In 2014, we hired more than 600 people. We anticipate this trend will continue this year. In fact, our growth strategy looks at doubling our size by 2020 to some 4,200 people. These are mainly engineers, project managers and subject matter experts.

Construction leadership summit

Meet these construction leaders and more at the MEED Construction Leadership Summit on 27 May 2015 at The Address Dubai Marina hotel in Dubai. Find out more and book your place at www.constructionleadershipsummit.com