Talent on tap: How to build a resilient workforce
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a shortage of workers in essential jobs, mainly due to temporary suspensions of migration, lockdowns and a lack of long-term workforce planning strategies. Consequently, many governments in the Middle East and North Africa are struggling to deal with labor shortfalls in various industries — perhaps most critically a shortage of doctors and nurses in healthcare facilities that are facing an influx of patients.
Indeed, in a region that has historically relied heavily on foreign labor, the pandemic has highlighted the importance of having local workforces to handle priority professions. Many countries, such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Oman, have taken steps to attract local staff to targeted sectors. The Kingdom recently made headlines with plans to create 213,000 jobs for Saudis in 2021 as part of its Saudization program.
However, in future, a robust and comprehensive workforce planning strategy should allow for unexpected “black swan” events and ensure minimal disruption across various industries and core services. To develop resilient nations in a post-pandemic era, governments will need to consider a range of scenarios, such as epidemics, economic recession, armed conflict, acts of terrorism, environmental disaster, and disruption to food and water supplies.
The main objective of this workforce planning strategy should be to supply the labor market with sufficient skilled local talents in order to support the economy through both challenging and prosperous times. A national strategy must identify the priority sectors, professions and qualifications needed to run the economy with minimal disruptions to various stakeholders, including the local population.
Analysts could consider healthcare, education, social care, science, technology, food and water security, infrastructure, economics and finance, cybersecurity and epidemiology as priority areas that need to be resilient during times of crisis.
A thorough assessment of the workforce will offer the valuable insights needed to formulate a national strategy. First, policymakers should examine the total number of graduates by specialization, focusing on aspects such as cohort size, gender, geographical location and qualification levels.
Next, a close examination of employment patterns will reveal shortfalls in the labor supply according to the total number of employees by different job families, skills and qualifications levels, school dropout rates, unemployment rates, average compensation packages, estimated ages of retirement, migration rates, turnover and retention rates, and workforce projections by sector.
Moreover, a comparison of local versus foreign talents within each job type will reveal risk markers with possible resilience implications. Understanding the root causes of these individual challenges can help policymakers design effective policies and programs to achieve optimal supply levels.
To boost the labor market with sufficient skilled talents, an educational curriculum must be designed to inspire students to pursue strategic, high-demand specializations. Many governments have launched education programs, extracurricular activities, clubs, fairs, field trips, library collections and contests around STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects in order to prepare students for future jobs in these fields.
It is also important to involve motivational career counsellors to nudge students to pursue their university education in those targeted specializations. Policymakers could recommend the top world-class university programs per specialization and establish special scholarship funds to encourage students to study locally or abroad.
Additionally, work development programs and training opportunities should be available in order to improve skills. For example, the Singapore government’s manpower ministry has a dedicated workforce planning department. One of the signature initiatives launched in recent years is the SkillsFuture program, which offers training and work development to Singaporeans throughout their careers. Its TechSkills Accelerator, delivered in partnership with industry leaders, provides training and placement opportunities in information technology.
Moreover, effective labor policies, such as lucrative compensation packages, family-friendly initiatives and retirement schemes, will need to be put in place to attract and retain talents in specific sectors. The UAE government recently announced it will invest 24 billion dirhams ($6.53 billion) to recruit 75,000 Emiratis to private sector jobs.
To boost the labor market with sufficient skilled talents, an educational curriculum must be designed to inspire students to pursue strategic, high-demand specializations.
The policy package entails an Emiratization quota of 10 percent for private companies in the next five years, in addition to paid training programs, subsidies for Emiratis working in the private sector, and support for local entrepreneurs looking to leave their government jobs and start their own enterprises.
Workforce planning strategies must be frequently monitored and updated to reflect changes in population demographics, industry transformations and emerging challenges. To ensure an effective delivery of these proposed policies and programs, national governments must foster strong partnerships with local governments, small and medium-sized enterprises, multinational corporations, schools, academic institutions, research centers and training agencies, with clear roles and responsibilities assigned to each stakeholder.
In a rapidly changing world, governments must transform their workforce planning strategies to meet future challenges with resilience. This will ensure they remain competitive and sustainable regardless of any crisis.
- Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature. She can be contacted at www.amorelicious.com.