The UAE and the wider Middle East markets are currently undergoing a digital transformation.
However, as new technologies and industries emerge, employers are struggling to fill vacancies due to candidates lacking the digital skills they need in today's jobs market.
A recent study by the World Bank estimated that 50 per cent of today's jobs will be eliminated by 2030 to 2040 and replaced by new ones. While it’s impossible to specify exactly which roles are yet to be invented, it is possible to predict, based on current trends, where these roles might be and what job seekers might need to do to make themselves attractive to employers.
David Meads, vice president, Middle East & Africa at Cisco, says there is an increasing demand for specialists in areas such as AI, blockchain, cloud, mobility, and Software Defined Networking (SDN). SDN is an umbrella term encompassing several kinds of network technology designed to allow network engineers and administrators to respond quickly to changing business requirements.
While all industries are currently vulnerable to a digital skills shortage, one particular area is struggling more than most. Cyber security is a rapidly growing segment of the IT industry. As a result of a string of high-profile cyber attacks on businesses in the past couple of years, employers are now anxious to secure their data. According to the Cisco 2018 Security Capabilities Benchmark Study, a shortage of qualified candidates was again one of the top three obstacles to security.
“With a deficit of approximately 2 million cybersecurity specialists globally, and an increase in cyber threats, the opportunities are endless for cybersecurity professionals,” says Mr Meads.
Fortinet, is an IT Security company that has been operating in the UAE for more than a decade. The business has had difficulties securing the highly qualified individuals this industry requires. Alain Penel, regional vice president, emphasises that the firm is always searching for talented individuals but due to the highly specialised field they operate in, there is a significant gap in the market.
"It is a case of high demand and diminished supply; there are a few candidates in the market, and they are highly sought after by a large number of employers in the same field of operation as Fortinet, or in the wider IT industry," he says.
With digital skills in high demand, recruiters are also struggling to fulfil client requirements from the local talent pool. Alex Koumi, managing director of digital, marketing, PR, tech & creative talent at Dubai-based Kingston Stanley recruitment agency, says the region is starting to catch up and develop its own talent but, more often than not, senior level digital and technology candidates still have to be sourced from overseas. "Clients have given feedback that candidates either do not have the right skill sets, have not had enough experience over the years running successful digital campaigns or cannot show tangible benefits,” he says.
Fadi Abdul Khalek is the vice president, strategic partnerships and efficacy at the UK-based Pearson Education, the largest education services company in the world. He recommends a three-step approach for candidates in order to stay relevant as all job roles become digital over time.
Firstly, employees must take responsibility for their own skill set and keep an eye on trends for future in-demand capabilities and skills - to be aware of what the future is bringing.
Secondly, Mr Khalek says, if they find there is a gap in their knowledge, they need to upskill themselves through training or digital learning tools. “If a role is limited in focus, employees should ask their manager to rotate tasks in order to gain more exposure to different aspects of the business,” he adds.
Lastly, Mr Khalek recommends embarking on innovative forms of learning such as "Micro Credentials". These are certified higher education courses that are delivered in small chunks, when needed, and linked directly to the industry. "These blended courses are an efficient way of learning new skills while still holding down a full-time job,” he adds.
Mr Koumi echoes this and counsels candidates to assess their skills and invest in new ones as well as being prepared to embrace continuous learning. He also recommends keeping networks current. "Join relevant groups on LinkedIn, attend professional conferences and participate in online discussions to stay up on trends and what people are talking about," he says. "Put in some effort to cultivate a truly helpful network that will give you an advantage.”
Upskilling has generally been regarded as the responsibility of job seekers and employees although many business leaders and governments are now focusing on how to increase digital skills among those currently in the job market and the young.
The Dubai Government recently launched Rahhal, part of Dubai 10X - a Dubai Future Foundation initiative to take Dubai 10 years ahead of the rest of the world – in just two years. Meaning "traveller" in Arabic, the message of Rahhal is simple: the world is a classroom and all learning counts.
Mr Meeds says Cisco is committed to closing the skills gap. Through its Networking Academy, it offers free training at universities, schools, NGOs, government entities, and vocational colleges across the region. “We have trained over 295,000 students in the Middle East over the past 20 years and believe that public policy, private & public-sector partnerships and training programmes can solve Middle East’s IT skills gap in the long run,” he says.
Fortinet also works with communities and training facilities to increase skills in cyber security. The Fortinet Network Security Academy (FNSA) collaborates with academic institutions, non-profit agencies, and veteran programs to provide a framework for students to become part of an elite group of cyber-security professionals.
“Recognising that there is a skills gap is the first step to help address the shortage," says Mr Penel. "I believe it is the responsibility of leading employers to help address this gap.”
Whether job seekers or employers take responsibility or not, the fact remains that the world is going digital and those who don’t adapt and develop their skills for the new age face the prospect of being left behind.