By Samer Bohsali and Ali Matar
Opinion: More GCC nationals need to embrace digital in order to fill next wave of jobs for citizens
The GCC countries have ambitious targets to move away from their dependence on oil.
National plans like Saudi Vision 2030 and Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030 require leaps of efficiency across their whole economies. Digitisation, driven by a local, skilled, and adaptable workforce, is one of the key enablers required to reach these objectives.
However, there are currently too few GCC digital professionals and they are overwhelmingly expatriates. This needs to be remedied if the GCC is to create the next wave of jobs for its citizens.
Supply and demand
A comprehensive Strategy& and LinkedIn analysis of the region’s job market found that only 1.7 percent of the GCC workforce consists of digital professionals, with the UAE accounting for the highest ratio (2.9 percent). This is much lower than the 5.4 percent ratio in the EU.
M<oMore troubling is that few of these professionals are nationals – just five percent in the UAE are Emirati, and their skills are poorly developed compared to digital professionals in comparable countries. None of the ten leading skills that GCC digital professionals mention most often on LinkedIn is technical and only one of those skills is among the ten fastest growing digital skills on the platform — “business development,” a soft, non-technical aptitude.
GCC professionals are held back by insufficient academic preparation and professional development opportunities. Undergraduates also show little interest in digital careers, largely preferring business and economics majors. Moreover, GCC economies are still technology adopters, with low levels of digitisation and digital innovation across sectors.
To boost their digital job markets, GCC governments need an action plan that secures a reliable supply of digital professionals and encourages demand for their skills. This should be achieved through partnerships with technology players, educational institutions, and corporations.
Building a talent base
On the supply side, governments should act in three areas to ensure GCC states have the same digital talent base as comparable countries.
First, they should improve digital education in schools, vocational training institutions and universities. This means keeping information and communications technology (ICT)-related curricula relevant, and creating a body of digital teachers through “training of trainers” programmes to ensure that they can provide their students with the latest knowledge. For example, the Estonian government has prioritised giving teachers the necessary training to incorporate a broad spectrum of ICT knowledge into their courses.
Second, they should improve the professional development environment, beginning at university and then for the rest of professionals’ careers. In the UK, for example, the Tech Partnership convenes major ICT companies, leading companies in multiple sectors and universities so that digital professionals can study for accredited certificates. Singapore sends digital professionals abroad on scholarships to hone their cybersecurity skills.
Governments should also define digital skills standards so that the education and corporate sectors have consistent expectations of digital professionals, furthering these skills through government-backed online lifelong learning platforms.
And finally, they can increase interest among nationals in digital-related fields through awareness campaigns that starts as early as primary schools. There is a growing number of initiatives in North America, for example, to encourage children to learn coding.
Governments should champion the digitisation of organisations by developing their underlying digital ecosystems. They should develop a digital-friendly regulatory environment, promote cloud computing, and build the correct infrastructure on a national level, removing data silos and increasing firms’ awareness of the benefits of digitisation.
Encouraging private sector participation is vital for this ecosystem.
In the UK, for example, the National Cyber Security Centre cooperates with companies and individuals to improve practices and incident responses.
Second, the government can put specific efforts into the ICT industry, such as attracting foreign ICT investors and pushing GCC firms to spend more on research and development, helping to move the GCC from technology consumption to production.
Third, governments should continue strengthening the environment for entrepreneurship in the GCC and provide additional funding. This can include drafting more business-friendly regulations and making it easier for startups to grow. One example is Estonia, which lets innovators obtain e-residency so that they can have an Estonian digital ID and create an EU-based business.
Setting up for success
The sum of these initiatives will help create employment and improve job resilience. Digital jobs can adapt to technological advances better than traditional roles and can involve flexible employment models, increasing opportunities for women and youth to find work. The GCC has the potential to create 1.3 million digital jobs by 2025 if it matches the EU’s current ratio of digital jobs to the total workforce.
To unlock these benefits, GCC governments will need to create an adaptable, comprehensive approach in developing their digital job market. Because the industry is a moving target, governments must continuously update their initiatives to account for new emerging technologies. GCC digital professionals themselves will also have to keep learning – today’s hot skills will become obsolete tomorrow. By creating this deep pool of digital talent, GCC governments can further the ultimate goal of economic transformation laid out in their national plans.