Supply and demand

There has never been such a demand for senior level MEP staff in the Gulf as there is today. Adam Dawson looks at the current situation of filling senior level vacancies and what companies are doing to attract the right candidates.
Supply and demand
By Adam Dawson
Sun 01 Apr 2007 12:00 AM

When demand outstrips supply, you have the situation that currently exists within the MEP sector worldwide. The construction industry is booming globally like never before and Dubai is at the very centre of this phenomenon. Yet at the same time, the number of qualified and experienced high-level engineers and managers seems to be falling, meaning that contractors and recruitment agencies all over the Gulf are falling over themselves to find the perfect candidates for roles.

"Over the past decade the number of engineering graduates has decreased," says Sarah Crisp, regional human resources (hr) advisor, Atkins Middle East. "But at the same time we are seeing an increase in the amount of construction all over the world, in China, India, the Gulf, and places like South Africa.

"It isn't just Dubai that has a problem finding qualified MEP staff. You have the same problems all over the world. But you have the added problem in Dubai that you are looking for people with specific knowledge of high-rise buildings. At Atkins we currently have 400 vacancies within the Gulf region," she adds.

One of the problems that Dubai has in recruiting experienced MEP staff is that it is still a relatively unknown quantity to many people. "Many people throughout the world don't know about Dubai," says Gregor Black, manager of Duneden Recruitment. "There isn't the awareness of the massive opportunities to work on fabulous projects while having a lifestyle that you wouldn't get elsewhere. Salaries are being pushed up so much at present that people can get the same wage at home as they would here, so they stay put."

One of the knock-on effects of the decrease in supply is that salaries for experienced staff have rocketed in the last few years. "Salaries are going up all the time," says Crisp. "Project managers and senior staff can pick and choose where they want to work because they know they are in such demand. If you can find one that wants to work in Dubai they are like a god."

Not only are contractors having to cope with an increase in wages, they are also having problems keeping their staff once they have hired them. "We often have had to attract candidates through a very competitive salary scheme and brilliant benefits," says Ramina Hanna, hr officer, Dutco Balfour Beatty Group. "This often includes things like free housing and free schooling for children. But once you get the right candidate keeping them can be a problem as a lot of poaching goes on amongst the companies out here."

As if that were not enough, contractors also have the added stress of finding a quota of Emiratis to meet the Government's Emiritisation scheme. "Finding local engineers is difficult," adds Hanna. "At the moment we are looking to hire two every month, but we are having problems. Firstly engineering isn't a popular choice with Emiratis. It isn't a glamorous profession and it is quite intensive. Those who do choose it as a career option seem to prefer to work in government as the benefits are better and the hours are less."

There are a number of engineering degrees on offer in Dubai and some contractors are even offering training schemes themselves, but in the short term this is not likely to solve the problem. "The problem we have is now," stresses Black. "It's good that there is training there for the future, but it isn't going to solve the shortage we currently have."

Hanna agrees. "The engineering courses we have in Dubai are training the locals who will take over when the boom ends," she says. "They will take over the MEP jobs when all the expats have gone home."

Black does admit that some relief may come in the near future. "The construction boom in China appears to be slowing down," he says. "I think you'll see an improvement in the situation here as a lot of the senior MEP staff move from there over here. Once they're here people seem to stay a while. The lifestyle is good and once you've been here and experienced it, it's difficult to go home. I can't imagine a project manager from Liverpool wanting to return home to work on a housing development after he has worked on the amazing projects out here in the sun," he concludes.

Masdar Institute of Science and Technology

The region is soon to get its own world-class science and engineering institute after the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company (ADFEC) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) joined forces. The institute will be non-profit and privately owned and will offer Masters and PhD programmes in science and engineering technologies. For the first two years it will be based at MIT, where the Masdar faculty and staff will be trained before returning to Abu Dhabi on the completion of the campus in 2009. “The Institute will be the first graduate-level, research-driven, scientific institution in the region,” says Sultan Al Jaber, ceo, Masdar. “MIT will provide the international experience to assist Masdar in establishing a sustainable, home grown academic and scientific research institute.

Engineering Programmes

There are a number of engineering degree programmes throughout the UAE. The American University in Dubai, Dubai Men’s College and the Centennial University of Dubai all offer engineering courses, as does the United Arab Emirates University in Al-Ain. The British University in Dubai (BUiD) offers a masters degree in Environmental Design of Buildings. This degree is specific to the region and teaches a more sustained approach to building design focusing on environmental issues and building in a desert environment. “We accept students from all over the world,” says BUiD head Dr Ahmad Okeil. “The course lasts for one year full-time, two years part-time and we get developers actively looking for our students when they graduate and are offering them very competative salaries,” he adds.

Contractor training schemes

MEP contractors are increasingly providing training schemes to make sure that they have enough senior level staff for the future. Thermo is one such contractor – it started its own internship scheme in February. “We take third-year [degree] students from anywhere in the world for two to three months,” says Shan Fazelbhoy, executive co-ordinator, Thermo. “We are even willing to sponsor some students from poorer countries to come over and we pay them while they are here, providing them with accommodation and transport. Once they graduate we can then recruit them if they pass a further interview.”

Trans Gulf Electro-Mechanical is another company that is looking to train from within. “We are looking at a long-term solution to the shortage in experienced staff, so are training our own people,” says director and managing partner Prakash Khatri. “We are recruiting graduates directly from universities, mostly in India at present, and put them through a two-year training scheme where they work in all the different sectors of the company. This seems to be the best way to ensure that we have enough experienced staff for the future.”

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