The region's construction industry is in the throes of a chronic staff shortage, and competition to secure the best people has become intense. With firms facing increasing pressure to recruit highly qualified staff, particularly those with local experience, the war over precious human resources has become brutal, and tactics have become increasingly underhand.
Companies are complaining that poaching of staff is rife and unscrupulous recruitment consultants regularly headhunt those most in demand, attempting to lure them away to competitors with the promise of vastly inflated salaries. "In the last year or so its been a very serious problem," said Dr Imad Al Jamal, vice president, higher technical consultative committee, UAE Contractors Association. "There are specialist people headhunting in this industry. They are looking for qualifications and experience in the local market. You're talking 25-50% pay rises - sometimes 100% in certain catagories."
In an industry dependent on planning and preparation, having staff leave a project will not help to deliver on time or within budget.
As well as money, people are being offered other incentives to move. "The big benefits are from project management companies, who will approach somebody and offer them a five-day week, while a contractor is on a six-day week," said Julie Faris, manager GCC, Hill McGlynn & Associates.
"There are other benefits - with some of the developers, they will pay your children's education. If you have three children and you are working for a contractor for US $12,250 (AED45,000) a month, but you can move for $11,700 to a developer and get their education paid, it's going to be worth a lot of money to you."
In an industry dependent on planning and preparation, having staff leave a project will not help to deliver on time or within budget. The inflated salaries are putting pressure on firms to pay over the odds to retain staff.
"Employees are going to their employers and saying: ‘I'm getting $5,445 a month but somebody else has just offered to pay me $8,168; what are you going to do?' His employer either has to give in or say: ‘I'm sorry we can't do it,'" added Al Jamal.
Another major frustration is recruiting expats from overseas, only to find they have jumped ship at the earliest possible opportunity. "We get junior engineers, fresh graduates from around the world and we train them, which takes about two years. And once the contract is over, they leave," said AK Vora, director of contracts, Al Ahmadiah Contracting and Trading.
So what should companies be doing to ensure they win the battle to retain their staff? Many companies have arranged ‘gentlemen's agreements' to ensure that poaching of staff does not take place between them. Others offer their employees bonus schemes to stay on. "Something that could counteract it is some kind of gratuity, where they give somebody a contract which could include an end of contract bonus to encourage people to stay," added Faris.
"A lot of expatriates want to come out here to save money, so if they were offered a salary of $12,250 a month, the company could say: ‘we'll give you $11,700 a month and the rest we'll put away for you and it would gain interest, and at the end of the contract we would give it to you'. That would counteract a lot of this jumping around."
The government has also recently stepped in to make it a lot harder for people to switch from contract to contract by making it harder for expatriates to transfer sponsorship. If an employee wants to change job a No Objection Certificate (NOC) is needed with the former sponsor's approval. If the employee does not receive an NOC they will automatically be banned from the country for a certain period of time.
"NOCs have come massively back in," said Faris. "Banning was phased out before but now we have had a lot of applicants that haven't been able to be taken on because their companies wont give them an NOC. If someone applies for a job through us the companies will say: ‘we will not even interview him unless you can guarantee he is going to be able to get an NOC from his current company.' The laws are vague but it varies, depending on the qualification and the length of time they have been in the company, how long they can be banned for, but it really does put people off moving."
Mariam Azmy, human resources director, ASGC points out that not all staff are susceptible to tempting offers from headhunters. "Salaries are not the most important thing. For our people its not just about the money. Another thing that exists strongly here is loyalty. If your staff are being well paid and they have got a decent job and a nice atmosphere where they are working, they are happy to come to work. Why would they think of moving?
"We get a lot of senior people coming to the HR department and saying: ‘we have tried be poached by this company or that company,' and then they make a joke of it," she added.For all the latest construction news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
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