Feature: Making huge strides in bridging the talent gap

Companies understand that recruiting and retaining the right people is of prime importance when it comes to staying ahead of the competition.

The GCC energy companies have launched a range of initiatives to ensure that national human talent is recruited and developed.
The GCC energy companies have launched a range of initiatives to ensure that national human talent is recruited and developed.

Good human capital is one of the prime requisites of a good company, and when it comes to the petrochemical industry, there is a need for people with specific skills and talents. The industry needs professionals who are capable of producing maximum profit margins from diminishing natural resources and, hence, it is important that they recruit the right talent.

“With a growing population in the Middle East and North Africa, companies will have to meet a surging energy demand while also addressing environmental issues. We will need capable professionals in the energy industry, which is growing rapidly, but where the pool of talent is still forming,” says Shabir Hussain, HR manager for United Arab Emirates and Iraq, Shell.

“There are two key elements to the process – recruiting talented people with the necessary technical skills in the locations they are needed most, and giving them the experience and training that allows them to function at the top of their profession,” Hussain explains.

This also holds true in the case of Orpic, which takes a strategic approach to the recruitment and training process. “Recruiting, developing and retaining employees are the major pillars in any human resources department, and at Orpic, we take a strategic approach tied to current business needs and projections for future global growth,” observes Nofal Al Saidi, general manager, human resources services, Orpic.

Orpic currently employs over 3,000 employees, representing 40 nationalities, with an Omanisation rate of 78%. Similarly, UAE’s ENOC has launched a range of programmes to ensure that national talent is recruited and developed.

“To claim that artificial intelligence alone could become a replacement for human capital in the future might be considered far-fetched,” says Abdallah Al Saleh, Emiratisation manager, ENOC.

“As a group that employs more than 11,000 people across our business units, we truly believe that people are the sum of our success and are deeply committed towards human capital development, and spare no effort in identifying, attracting, nurturing and retaining talent,” Abdallah Al Saleh, Emiratisation manager, ENOC, comments.

Retaining talent through incentives and training

Companies take several steps and strategies to regularly develop and retain national talent. “Orpic’s competitive advantage is encompassed in a positive working environment, flexible working hours, creatively designed office spaces, opportunities for growth and development, employee discounts, the stability of our country, and locations and communities where its offices and refineries are located,” says Al Saidi.

Shell, meanwhile, believes in creating an inclusive culture where employees can thrive. “Today’s talent is more diverse than ever before. An inclusive work environment is key to innovating, developing and retaining that talent,” remarks Hussain.

“ENOC demonstrates its commitment to its greatest assets by encouraging all employees to take the first step towards their development – first with individual development plans and secondly by offering ongoing opportunities to build their competencies, knowledge and experience. For high-potential and talented employees, we have specially designed programmes to enhance both technical and leadership skills in preparation for competency attainment and career progression,” Al Saleh states.

Tie up with educational institutions

Education plays a key role in developing human capital, and companies understand this. Many of them have partnered with universities to keep receiving a steady stream of qualified national graduates. ENOC has launched a Technical Training Programme, in partnership with several academic institutes, including Higher Colleges of Technology and Abu Dhabi Vocational Education and Training Institute.

“We have recently launched the ENOC Energy Scholarship programme, which provides candidates the opportunity to undertake a master’s degree in energy at Heriot-Watt University, Dubai. The scholarship programme is offered to ENOC employees and external UAE nationals who are in their final year of their undergraduate engineering degree. We are currently in the process of evaluating applications and will announce the scholarship winners by the beginning of the 2018 academic year,” observes Al Saleh.

“With 600 current expatriate employees out of a total of 3,000, we do not see an overdependence on expatriates at Orpic,” says Nofal Al Saidi, general manager, human resources services, Orpic.

Orpic is considered a leader in Oman when it comes to its commitment to educational programmes for our youth. “We have paid scholarship programmes for employees to complete their bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Most of the students studying overseas attend high-ranking universities and schools, such as MIT in the US and HEC in France. This programme targets local Omani students at grade 10 levels, attending first a boarding school for two years prior to enrolling in a four-year university, or college. Orpic has sponsored five batches, funding a total of 50 students’ full education,” Al Saidi reveals.

“In service to our local community’s educational needs, we serve as both a board member and financially supporting partner to Al Batinah International School located in Sohar. Orpic is committed to providing a bilingual educational experience to both Omanis and expatriate children. Additionally, Orpic offers a unique initiative by sponsoring 15-20 students to complete their study in a different and untraditional type of learning experience.”

Growth of artificial intelligence (AI)

With the recent advancements in AI and machine intelligence, there is no doubt that AI will play a crucial role in the petrochemical industry and the wider oil and gas industry in the future. In December 2016, ExxonMobil announced that it is working with MIT to design AI robots for ocean exploration. In August 2015, Shell announced that it would be the first company in the lubricants sector to launch an AI assistant for customers.

“At Shell, one way we transfer knowledge is by giving older workers formal roles as mentors to the next generation,” says Shabir Hussain, HR manager for UAE and Iraq, Shell.

But will AI be a replacement for human capital? Our experts say that it is unlikely. AI will only complement human labour and, in all probability, will lead to the creation of more jobs. “Throughout history, we see that new technologies have only created more number of jobs. Technology at first allows you do things differently, but eventually, it means you do different things. For example, in the future, we might have robotics coordinators. Their job will be to operate and maintain robots and they will not require to be on the production line, or out in the plant, or field site,” predicts Hussain.

Orpic also has a positive outlook on the impact machine learning can have on the industry, going as far as preferring to expand AI to mean ‘alternative intelligence’ rather than artificial intelligence.

“We are embracing the enhancements brought about by technology disruptions, including alternative intelligence. We count ourselves among the 85% of global leaders who believe that AI will allow us to obtain, or sustain our competitive advantage by transitioning transactional tasks to robotics, while upskilling our staff for more analytical and strategic thinking functions, resulting not only in cost savings but also a more engaged and fulfilled workforce,” Al Saidi remarks.

However, he is quick to stress on the importance of human element. “The ‘human touch’ will remain a key component of our recruitment process and how we do business with our external stakeholders.”

Al Saleh echoes similar views and believes that AI will contribute largely to improving efficiency levels. “To claim that AI alone could become a replacement for human capital in the future might be considered far-fetched. I would say that it is more a challenge of optimisation so as to contribute to the energy sector on a broader scale.”

As investments in digital technologies by energy firms have risen sharply over the last few years, AI can be used as a tool that can help transform the ocean of industry data into new smart solutions, according to Al Saleh.

Overdependence on expatriates

“With 600 current expatriate employees out of a total of 3,000, we do not see an overdependence on expatriates at Orpic,” Al Saidi opines. “We have a strategic approach to hiring, developing and retaining our local Omani workforce. Expatriates serve as a vehicle to assist us to both maximise our stakeholders’ value, while also upskilling and developing our local talent.”

Hussain says the issue of overreliance on expatriates is not always the case in all parts of the industry. “For example, in Iraq, at the Basrah Gas Company (BGC), there has been a ramp up in the workforce during the second half of 2017 and 2018 as the company evolves and leverages its growth plans. Today, BGC employs around 5,800 secondees – almost 93% of who are Iraqis with a few hundred international experts. One of the key pillars of BGC’s strategy is the integration of local and expatriate staff.”

The talent gap

Over the past three decades, the oil and gas industry in the GCC has created an experienced and skilled cluster of workers who have played a crucial role in bringing the industry to what it is now.

But these professionals, having reached the prime of their careers, will soon retire in the coming decade. With the process of nationalisation and skill development in universities still underway, will this create a shortage of skilled talent in the industry?

Hussain agrees that an ageing population is a source of volatility and uncertainty. “Although Shell does not have an overall problem with workforce ageing, it is exacerbating the energy challenge in some parts the industry. In particular, we depend on highly skilled engineers and scientists,” comments Hussain.

“People like reservoir engineers, geologists and deep-water drilling specialists have deep technical expertise acquired through decades of experience. When they retire, it can be difficult to replace them. The industry is also vulnerable to skills shortages in the emerging markets where demand growth is outpacing the availability of experienced energy workers.”

Shell is working hard to avoid a scramble for skills in the future, and one way it is doing this is by recruiting through the economic cycle. “We need to ensure that as employees retire from the top of the career ladder, there is enough new talent coming in at the bottom to replace them. More than half of our graduate recruits are in technical disciplines, and we hope many of them will go on to become experts in their field,” Hussain opines.

“It is also important for us to take a strategic approach to resourcing – recruiting people who have not just the skills we need today, but those which we will need tomorrow. In 2002, we introduced the Shell People system, a global information system, which gathers data on all our employees. Using that data, we continuously model the demography of our workforce to identify developing skills gaps, and then act to fill those gaps before they grow.”

But preventing skills shortages is not just about replacing workers as they retire. To ensure continuity, skills must also be transferred from one generation to the next. “At Shell, one way we transfer knowledge is by giving older workers formal roles as mentors to the next generation. Perhaps the most important lesson is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Population ageing is a challenge which can be met if governments, businesses and individuals all work together,” remarks Hussain.

Orpic, too, has a favourable view of the situation. “We are aligned with the rest of the GCC region in which 56% of Orpic employees are 35 years, or younger. We see the younger generations as an asset – bringing fresh ideas, pushing our innovation boundaries, and welcoming their desire to make a difference. We are committed to their development and we have leadership development and succession planning in place to develop our younger talent,” Al Saidi points out.

“We recently hired an internal executive coach to work with our ‘ageing workforce’ on embracing the many changes and mind-set shifts required of all of our leaders as we expand globally and diversify our business offerings to our customers worldwide. Orpic is a dynamic place to work, and the influx of young talent brings with it the energy and opportunities we embrace.”

Nationalisation endeavours

The GCC chemical industry is a major employer for the region, boasting one of the highest nationalisation rates.

“For every job created in the chemical industry, three new jobs are created in other sectors,” Dima Horani, head of marketing and communications, GPCA.

“On average, GCC nationals make up 61% of the entire regional chemical industry workforce. In total, 152,100 people are directly employed by the industry, with employment growing by 6.2% over the past decade. For every job created in the chemical industry, three new jobs are created in other sectors. Thus, the chemical industry accounts for an estimated 456,300 indirect employment opportunities,” says Dima Horani, head of marketing and communications, Gulf Petrochemicals and Chemicals Association (GPCA).

Nationalisation is a key factor companies must keep in mind during the recruitment process. “We are proud of the numbers of fresh graduates we hire annually to contribute positively to the Omani economy,” Al Saidi observes.

“Like elsewhere in the GCC, nationalisation pressures do exist, and we have strategies in place to meet the demands for Omanisation – currently at 78% – while securing needed external expertise, bringing with it the added benefit of upskilling and developing our local talent. For instance, our new project – Liwa Plastic Industries Complex – is the first of its kind in Oman, with limited Omani experience and expertise. Our external talent work side-by-side our Omani hires, creating a conducive environment for knowledge transfer and the development of our local talent.”

But does the MENA region lag behind when it comes to producing a qualified workforce? This may have been true in the past, but things are changing, the experts say. “Aligned with Orpic’s Vision to be a globally competitive downstream business that Oman is proud of, we view our 40 nationalities as an asset, bringing diversity of thought, ideas, opinions, depth of experience, and industry expertise to give Orpic its competitive advantage in the global marketplace,” explains Al Saidi.

“With external hires from industry giants like ADNOC, BP, Borouge, Borealis, ExxonMobil, Pertamina, SABIC, Sasol, Sadara, Saudi Aramco, Shell, Suncor, Tasneea and Talle, we leverage expatriates’ experience and expertise to upskill and develop our local Omani workforce,” Al Saidi reveals.

The nationalisation process is important for developing the country’s local workforce, says Hussain. “In the UAE, our Emiratisation programme allows Shell to become the employer of choice for Emirati nationals. Inspired by UAE Vision 2021, it is part of our commitment to develop the local workforce in the UAE.”

“We have been developing a significant number of UAE nationals throughout the years and sending them to different locations to come back and share the global knowledge to impact UAE and lead the way. Many UAE nationals working for Shell hold technical and commercial positions at all levels of the company, from young people beginning their careers to senior managers.”

“We are proud that UAE nationals work in all aspects of our business, including engineers, finance and commercial experts, geologists, researchers, IT specialists, legal consultants, technicians, human resources advisors, project managers, business analysts and marketing professionals,” Hussain concludes.

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