Top bankers say their companies face a skills shortage in the Gulf as customers demand better service, a new study shows.
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The survey from Accenture, a management consultancy, found 58 per cent of executives at banks operating in Gulf believe a skills shortage is the biggest challenge facing banks' profitability.
The poll of 47 bank executives found the increasing need to ensure customer loyalty required improved skills from bank employees, said Amr El Saadani, Accenture's regional managing director for the financial services industry.
"Customers are getting more sophisticated and more demanding, and this will require a proactive response from the banks," he said.
People dealing with banks are demanding around-the-clock access to services, as well as increased access through new technology.
But Gulf banks are also finding themselves hard-pressed to recruit additional employees to staff women's branches and to expand their market share for lending to small and medium enterprises, Mr El Saadani added.
"In Saudi Arabia, the competition is very high between the banks on talent … lots of small businesses are driven by women who want to start nurseries or sewing shops," he said.
"You need different talents from people to address them and to be able to give loans, despite the fact that [entrepreneurs] have a short history and they don't have a huge amount of collateral."
To ensure staff retention, 53 per cent of executives said they were implementing coaching and mentoring schemes for employees, while 51 per cent of executives said they were revamping compensation through higher salaries and bonuses. The study did not distinguish between retail and investment banks.
But the difficulties of attracting specialist staff may be mitigated by policies intended to increase the numbers of Gulf nationals in the private sector, Mr El Saadani added.
Government policies such as Emiratisation in the UAE have mandated specific hiring quotas for the banking and insurance sectors.
"Meeting the local requirements of '-isation' programmes is part of the overall strategy they need to address," Mr El Saadani said. "However, banks should consider this an opportunity rather than an obstacle."
Standard Chartered has put in place staff retention schemes for Emirati employees, bringing down its staff attrition rate for UAE nationals from 35 per cent in 2008 to 19 per cent last year - below the national average.
"The local knowledge of our UAE national employees has provided the bank with a valuable intellectual heritage and national cultural identity that we continue to leverage," Standard Chartered said in a report on Emiratisation.
"The tips and tricks it has learned have helped cut costs, maximise output, remove hurdles and smooth the process of business implementation," it said.
"The local workforce act as 'cultural advisers' who help maintain these crucial relationships and subsequent negotiations."
Not all banks are competing for new staff. HSBC Middle East, the biggest international lender in the UAE, cut 200 jobs across the region in its retail banking division in September, while Shuaa Capital recently announced "significant" job cuts.
Both had already laid off staff this year.