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Recruitment market to stabilise, say experts

Local companies still hiring staff as infrastructure budgets rocket

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Government backing for the infrastructure segment is leading to normalisation in the recruitment field, according to local HR directors.
Government backing for the infrastructure segment is leading to normalisation in the recruitment field, according to local HR directors.
SETE Energy's George Antonopoulos.
SETE Energy's George Antonopoulos.
Metito's Hisham Fadda.
Metito's Hisham Fadda.

Regional infrastructure companies believe that the recruitment market has matured as a result of the economic crisis, and that there is still a strong pool of professionals available for hire. Earlier this year, a Dubai-based recruitment website claimed that while the number of vacancies being posted in most verticals had shrunk considerably, the demand for infrastructure-related functions had rocketed by nearly 150% on the back of ongoing government investment in this crucial segment.

Although this was a review by one particular agency – and not indicative of recruitment patterns across all sectors and all countries of the GCC – to the casual observer, the premise seems obvious. While certain sectors, particularly the real estate sector in Dubai, for example, have been flayed by the economic crisis, governments and local authorities across the region have been putting money where their collective mouths are.

Saudi Arabia, for example, has set aside a whopping 16% of its total capital spending (around US$9.35 billion) on the water, agriculture and infrastructure sector in its budget for this, an increase of 25% on last year. Abu Dhabi is set to apportion 17.5% of its $11.9 billion budget for 2010 on the segment. All of this is surely means safe jobs and strong prospects for infrastructure professionals, including those working and recruiting in the utilities industries.

But behind the headlines, what is the reality on the ground? “There is some truth in the statement that this sector has remained strong from the recruitment side,” said Hisham Fadda, group human capital director at water company Metito. “But one of the major changes has been the fact that the whole recruitment business had descended into a price war before the economic crisis hit. This has now stabilised and the market has become more realistic.”

Fadda’s belief is that the switch in psychology has led to decisions on the part of some staff to stay put, evaluate their options and maintain job security. Firms have now ceased fighting over potential staff and raising salaries to unsustainable levels, leading to a more responsible approach. “The outcome points towards a more rational market, like in the UK, where the difference in salary for certain clerical staff only varies by a few hundred pounds per annum from different agencies,” Fadda said.

Companies based in Saudi Arabia have long envied Dubai’s attractions for the expatriate workforce. “The key recruitment issue we face at present is convincing prospective new staff to leave current employment often to a new region, with many new SETE Energy staff coming from Europe and the US,” indicated George Antonopoulous, CEO of SETE Energy. “As a result of the business environment, the major challenge we have is finding staff who are willing to relocate full-time to the Kingdom and to retain them in-Kingdom.”

SETE Energy is creatively combating this problem mainly by recruiting through word-of-mouth within the Latsis Group (the owning group), a diverse company that has the necessary technical personnel contacts in oil, energy and infrastructure within the EU to refer new staff. “But generally speaking, infrastructure projects and recruiting for them within the region and specifically KSA will always remain strong due to several factors, the most significant of which is that state expenditure on infrastructure remains a prominent part of national budgets year-on-year,” Antonopoulos added.

The key question is whether local companies are still hiring. Metito, which says its staffing levels were not affected as a result of the crisis, thinks that the outlook is positive. “I believe we’ll be in a position to hire more staff soon,” said Fadda. “There are a lot of projects for us in the pipeline, but we’re being very selective.”

The Metito executive believes that a measured approach to company growth in the boom years has helped it through the last 12 months or so, and that the issue of motivation has come to the fore. “We haven’t stopped our bonus schemes and rewards to our staff, and we have been able to afford to continue to do this precisely because we didn’t go wild in the first place,” he added.

For SETE Energy, an expanded team is definitely on the horizon. “Specifically for 2008-2009, this has been a very positive period for us in terms of signing off new projects and we are actually undergoing a recruitment drive for approximately 150 new engineering and technical personnel in the medium term,” Antonopoulos stated.

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