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Mon 11 Feb 2008 04:00 AM

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Tempting top talent

Middle East architecture firms are constantly recruiting new talent but are they luring the best of the best?

Middle East architecture firms are constantly recruiting new talent but are they luring the best of the best?

With major projects underway in China, Russia, Europe and the Middle East, and the status quo development in North America, unprecedented numbers of architects are auctioning their skills to the highest international bidder.

The combination of year-round sunshine, tax-free living and evermore iconic programmes, is indeed making the Middle East an enticing location for some of the world's top architectural talent.

Most people have difficulty finding talent because everything in Dubai is due ‘yesterday’ and so goes with the HR requirements.

"The majority of architects chose their profession because they are passionate about their designs and the prospect of building them, so what better place to express that creativity, and make their mark on a city, than coming to the Middle East?" asks Tim Askew, managing director of Atkins Middle East & India.

However, the point several firms are making is that ‘qualified' doesn't always translate as ‘talented'.

While significant numbers of architects are coming to the Middle East with ambitions of building the next twisting tower or mixed-use development, the region's architecture firms-both large and small-continue to sift through increasingly average CVs.

"I do not find a shortage of qualified architects, but equally, I do not find a surplus of talented ones," says William W.L. Yuen, director of P&T Architects in Dubai.

"There are a lot of ‘qualified' architects who are average but we're looking for the ‘exceptional' ones, which is not that easy."

"There is certainly no surplus of really talented architects."

Ammar Al Assam, director of business development for Dewan Architects & Engineers agrees: "Recruiting architects and engineers is easy. However, recruiting qualified professionals with solid experience is not easy."

Pointing to the Middle East construction boom, Al Assam says that the demand for qualified people-and the market reaction-too often outweighs the supply of good talent.

"The problem is exacerbated by inflated salaries and expectations," he says.

Challenges in recruitment

One of the biggest challenges in recruiting top talent is developing, and not deviating from, a solid recruitment strategy.

Direct recruitment, recruitment agents, hosting open-house days, providing incentives for hiring staff, recruiting from abroad and outsourcing are some of the methods that have proven successful for local firms.

"The challenges in [recruiting top architects] are to define your recruitment strategy and goals for the year."

"A man-power plan needs to be developed in advance to gauge your needs," says Al Assam.

Recruiting talented individuals begins with developing the firm's reputation as an equitable and friendly workplace.

But even if these characteristics are in place, some of the region's top firms still run into visibility issues.

"Atkins has been set up in this region for many years. We're a market leader with an enviable portfolio of completed projects," says Askew.

"[But] the biggest challenge we face, is ensuring the very best know we are looking for them."
While major firms sometimes find it difficult to get their message out, some of the region's newer firms, however, simply get overshadowed.

"One of the most challenging things for us is to convey the message that there are good local design firms out there," says Omran Al Owais, creative director for Centimeter Cube.

I think spending time with the staff and trying to give them a sense of achievement and level of ownership over their work is very important.

"And that the emerging generation of Emirati architects is competent enough to create an architectural dialogue of merit."

Owing to the shortage of exceptional architects and the plethora of development around the world, other firms are even struggling to recruit from within their home markets.

Hong Kong-based P&T Architects is finding it increasingly difficult bring Asian architects to the Middle East.

"We find it more difficult to get Asian architects [to our Dubai office] than European or Australian ones," says Yuen, P&T.

"I think because there is so much work in China, and all over Asia, that people would rather stay home."

Fortunately for some firms, having multinational status allows them to shift staff and resources rather than succumbing to market demands.

"Because we're a group, we're not forced into a corner where we have to take whatever we can get and pay whatever [the new recruit] asks," adds Yuen.

Sweetening the deal

Because of the difficulty of finding and successfully recruiting top tier individuals, the region's architecture firms are employing myriad strategies for retaining talented personnel.

Centimeter Cube, founded by American University of Sharjah graduates Omran Al Owais and Atif Khawaja, has seen some success in luring talented new recruits from Ivy League American universities and experienced professionals from larger firms like OMA.

"To tempt such talent we are giving them an opportunity to design now, while design is still fresh in their minds, and take responsibility for their own work," says Atif Khawaja.

"To do your own design in most major firms, one has to climb the ladder. Our strategy is to scrap the hierarchy."

According to Askew, Atkins is also a firm that highlights career development and employee growth, so progression within the company is always at the forefront of any potential employment discussions.

Dewan and P&T are similarly interested in retaining top talent but they use slightly different strategies to do so.

For example, Dewan has developed an annual bonus scheme which is paid to its entire staff-from partners to associates to administrative personnel-for their contribution to the year's success.

"Dewan is also probably one of the first architecture firms in the region that is developing a partnership stock plan/programme for senior key staff," says Al Assam.

While financial incentives are crucial to retaining key staff in this market, P&T has been successful using a more holistic approach.

"I've found that the best way to attract architects and staff-apart from money and status-is by offering them a sense of belonging; a sense of achievement and responsibilities," says Yuen.

"I always tell new candidates, ‘Look, if you just want to become an associate in two or three months, that's not our company culture. You need to show ability and loyalty and see whether you fit into the culture of the company," adds Yuen.

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