Wanted: skilled workers for UAE

The UAE's economy is in the midst of a recovery, but experts are raising new warnings about a shortage in skilled workers that could hamper future growth.

A nurse monitors a patient at Tawam Hospital in Al Ain. Companies are now looking for a different set of skills as they try to fill vacancies with medical personnel, engineers and other professionals.
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Fresh concerns are being raised about the UAE's shortage of skilled workers as economic activity in the country continues to improve.

About 250,000 skilled, qualified workers were needed to keep the economy growing in the UAE before the financial crisis hit, according to a forecast conducted by Manpower, a global employment services company.

"[Today] my forecast for that is almost exactly the same," said David Arkless, the president of corporate and government affairs at Manpower.

But he and other experts warn the country is falling well short of this goal. "Have we got a talent shortage in the UAE? We absolutely have," Mr Arkless said.As the region continues to diversify its reliance on non-energy industries such as financial services, logistics and information technology, its need for talented labour will only "accelerate", he said.

Last week, the IMF said the UAE's "economic recovery is gaining strength". It also noted that non-oil GDP growth was projected to accelerate to 3.25 per cent this year, up from 2 per cent last year.

Some experts say the UAE's economy may also benefit from the influx of capital from investors who are seeking a safe haven from neighbouring countries beset with unrest. Beyond that, there are also "pretty ambitious plans for development" in the UAE, said Sherif el Diwany, the senior director of the Mena region for the World Economic Forum, an organisation that works with business, academic and political leaders in shaping regional industry agendas.

Mr el Diwany said business owners in the UAE "are not satisfied with the supply of skills in the market. This applies across the region but also includes the UAE".

Unlike in the past, when the demand for lower-skilled labourers such as construction workers and hospitality staff was particularly high, companies are now increasingly looking for a different set of skills as they try to fill vacancies with medical personnel, engineers and other professionals.

"They don't have to do with technical skills, but a soft set of skills" such as independent problem solving and organisational leadership, said Mr el Diwany. "The new job market is completely different."

The Government has recently tried to improve the situation by providing businesses with new incentives including discounted labour cards to encourage the hiring of more skilled workers and Emiratis. But some companies are also expected to create their own strategies.

At next month's Middle East Business Leaders Summit and Awards in Dubai, a forum of executives is scheduled to address the need for developing and maintaining human capital in this region.

"The chief objective is to help in the development and training of the region's new breed of business leaders," said Shahul Hameed, the group chief executive for My Events International, which stages the event.

Yet some opportunities for hiring workers from the UAE may have already been lost, along with potential investments from new businesses.

Mercury Healthcare, a consultancy based in the US, was recently looking to expand into the UAE and Mena region. One challenge, however, was running into "disparities in roles, skills and training" of local employees who applied for positions, said Maria Todd, the chief executive of Mercury Healthcare. "A nurse is not a nurse by the same standards as here in the US, even after two years' training.

"They [the Emirates] have a nursing shortage and import from elsewhere such as Malaysia. English-language fluency of clerical staff is harder to find than I envisaged."

For these reasons, as well as the unrest in other areas of the region, Ms Todd said the company had decided to postpone its expansion plans in the UAE and elsewhere in the Mena region for at least six months.