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Jobs advice: What Gulf construction firms look for when hiring

Top trends driving recruitment in the sector

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Recruiting the right candidate for a vacant position is seldom an easy process. In the GCC’s intensely competitive construction industry, it can be even more challenging, given that the high-profile construction and infrastructure projects coming up in the region will require skilled talent.

The GCC is investing heavily in infrastructure projects, with $172 billion worth of projects currently underway, according to a Deloitte report in May this year. The much-discussed Expo 2020 and World Cup 2022 will no doubt continue to drive growth in the UAE and Qatar, while Saudi Arabia appears set to maintain its position as the largest construction market in the Gulf, with a host of infrastructure projects in the pipeline for coming years.

It’s thus worth examining how large-scale projects are affecting recruitment activity in the construction industry in the region, and how companies are going about the hiring process.

Kieran Hinphey, director of Irish recruitment firm Reach Personnel, points out that the mega-projects coming up in the region mean a growing demand for certain skills and competencies. “There are gargantuan projects happening presently, and a common thing among such projects is delays. So there’s certainly a trend towards a rise in disputes and increasingly for arbitration arising from contractual issues. There’s also an increased focus on risk management processes. Consultancies involved in that type of work, they’re very busy.”

Experience in arbitration and dispute resolution is therefore set to become increasingly valuable going forward, he notes. “There’s also an increased scrutiny on projects with regards to the safety and welfare of workers, and this will strongly influence skills requirement. We expect an increased consideration towards employee welfare with regards to skills and standards for candidates and people who are hired. All eyes are on certain countries with big events coming up, so that’s going to be a massive influence going forward.”

After all, events as highly anticipated as the World Cup bring with them a fair amount of media scrutiny, as anybody following the news coverage on Qatar in recent months can testify to. Companies can thus no longer afford to take health and safety lightly, or sweep it under the rug, and this too will be a competency in demand over coming years, Hinphey notes.

Emerging trends

While technical skills, qualifications and experience are definitely a must for those seeking to land or switch jobs in construction, is it enough for companies? Emma Davies, HR manager at ALEC, says soft skills are now just as important as an applicant’s technical background.

“It’s all about behaviours. Technical skills can absolutely be taught. For us, it’s about whether you’re an ALEC person or not,” she stresses.

“We’re very focused on delivery, so we can tell an ALEC person straightaway. It doesn’t matter what their job role is, they’ll deliver. They’re part of the team, and that’s really important to us. So we go out, we look for those people who fit that profile rather than just someone with amazing qualifications and technical skills.”

Apart from new skills and competencies gaining importance, other trends are beginning to emerge in construction recruitment. For one, firms are now increasingly moving towards conducting recruitment in-house, rather than relying on external agencies, Hinphey and Davies both point out.

“We’re finding employers are highly selective presently, particularly with regards to agency recruitment, with an increase in clients in construction companies building their own in-house recruitment infrastructure,” Hinphey says.

Davies agrees, noting that ALEC often uses online portals like LinkedIn for recruitment. “We do everything in-house. We don’t need any agencies at all. Generally, most of our recruitment comes from people contacting us who want to come and work. The reputation of a business is really important to people. And ALEC’s reputation is quite good in the market, so people are keen to come and work with us.”

The downside of companies managing recruitment in-house is that specialised firms often have the resources and network to find better candidates, Hinphey says. “Companies leaning towards in-house infrastructure and recruitment to cut costs can often lead to hiring lower-tier candidates, which can often be financially much more costly for them.”

Moreover, specialised recruitment firms work to understand the culture of their client’s firm and find employees who are the right fit for their company and projects, he says. “A partnership like this is priceless for employers who want to ensure projects are successful. And as the saying goes, ‘If you think hiring a professional for a job is expensive, wait until you hire an amateur.’”

Clients are using the services of recruitment firms, however, when hiring for senior management roles. For these positions, companies tend to look for candidates that are not only qualified but have relevant project-specific experience, Hinphey says.

There is certainly no shortage of available talent in the region for companies looking to hire, Davies notes. “We are not finding that we particularly have to go outside the Middle East to recruit at the moment, certainly not for senior or junior roles.”

The flip side

As firms get more discerning when it comes to screening applicants, it’s important to consider the flip side of the equation and examine what candidates are looking for, apart from remuneration and benefits.

Hinphey points out that the reputation of a company is crucial to attract talent, particularly in the construction industry. “We often find it’s certainly not just a case of money and benefits. The top-tier candidates only want to work for the more exclusive, reputable employers and companies, and on the more prestigious projects. That’s a really big driver with regards to deciding their next career move.”

Davies agrees that reputation is important, and adds that long-term career growth is certainly becoming a motivating factor. “People certainly now feel they’re looking for long-term career prospects within businesses rather than just quick money, and I think that that’s driving people now. People will definitely look at where their career progression is going to go.”

Market trends seem to indicate that professionals are indeed looking beyond the paycheque when considering taking up a new job. According to a recent report on GCC salaries and employment by recruitment agency Hays, career development and a high salary are the most important contributing factors for professionals in the facilities and property sectors, when accepting a new job offer. Those in construction and architecture were more likely to seek challenging roles and generous benefits.

On the other hand, the aspect where respondents on the survey reported dissatisfaction with their current employers was a lack of training offered as part of the benefits package.

It’s easy to infer that professional development on the job is important to prospective candidates. So how do companies stay ahead of the game as far as talent development is concerned?

ALEC has a succession planning profile for employees and conducts a talent management program in-house. Under the programme, staff are assigned mentors in senior roles and given career coaching, all of which is carried out internally within the company. “We don’t need an external provider for training either. We have found that we’ve got the talent in-house, and we use that, we share that talent,” Davies notes.

Employees are also given support when pursuing other qualifications, though not financially, Davies says. Ensuring employee development, after all, is a company’s way of showing it values its workforce. “At ALEC, we’re a family business. We’re quite concerned about our people. ‘We value our people’ is one of our core values. And that’s really important to us.”

Talent retention

For most firms looking to expand, finding the right candidates can be a daunting task. But for a company to continue to grow, retaining talent is also essential. Big Project ME wondered, therefore, how companies work towards ensuring workforce satisfaction.

According to Davies, ALEC runs a talent management programme called Evolve to ensure career development amongst its employees, by assigning mentors to staff and new hires. “All our senior managers are mentors, and they’re given mentor training. They generally have two or three mentees each.”

In addition to assigning mentors, the company employs an external career coach, who meets with staff periodically and is constantly available for coaching over the phone or Skype.

Employee satisfaction is also an important part of the programme. “Our employee turnover is very low, 3% at the moment, so that’s something that we look at. We like to stay on top of that. We make sure everybody has an exit interview if they’re leaving. If there’s a problem, we do find out about it very quickly.”

The company is also very hands-on with line managers and encourages employees to raise any issues they’re facing. “People are encouraged across the board to come and talk to HR if they’ve got any problems, and we do look to how we can manage that and help them. I think we’ve progressed quite a lot in terms of making HR more operational, and that makes a massive difference to employee satisfaction.”

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