Aramco needs to compete to attract young Saudi talent in future
If you read the findings of a study conducted by The Red Sea Development Co., a company fully owned by the Public Investment Fund, the first thought that might come to your mind is that Saudi Aramco may not retain its position as the most sought-after employer in future.
The study astonishingly revealed that nine out of 10 young Saudis, or 90 percent, are interested in pursuing a career in tourism, compared to just over three quarters, or 77 percent, who are interested in careers in oil and petrochemicals.
Why this shift? It seems the Saudi youth are now more interested in joining a field that is linked to projects being carried out under Saudi Vision 2030 such as TRSDC, NEOM, Qiddiya, and Diriyah Gate.
Tourism and entertainment are not the only sectors of the future in Saudi Arabia as there are financial technology, hospitality, and IT with all its different subfields from cybersecurity to data science.
Assuming that the findings of the study represent a wider sample of the Saudi youth, so what would this mean? First, an increase in the cost of employment, and second a possible skill gap at top-level jobs.
For years, the oil industry had been suffering from a skill gap and I recall industry leaders raising this issue at various events of the Society of Petroleum Engineers.
This issue is mainly caused due to the cyclical nature of the oil business as many oil service companies worldwide let go of their staff whenever oil demand fell and there was no need for drillers. Today, oil companies don’t have the best image or reputation and many millennials want to work in projects that are known to save the planet or give back greatly to society.
Ten years ago, Saudi Aramco did not face this issue and it kept employing Saudis. Many vocational colleges were opened during that time just to provide the needed manpower to the Saudi oil giant. No matter what any study predicts, I am of the view that Aramco will need fresh manpower in the thousands to carry out work on its expansion plans in oil and gas.
There will be a need for engineers in all areas to work for Aramco, but what about other soft skills jobs such as data analysis or cybersecurity? Why would anyone with superior skills in project management or data analysis work in Aramco when he can be paid double if he opts to work with of the government agencies in Riyadh or one of the future projects such as NEOM or TRSDC?
Aramco remained a hot recruitment place in the past for reasons such as its housing program that helps staff own homes in less than 10 years, the relaxed and open culture of the Eastern Province, and its proximity to Bahrain, where families go over the weekend to enjoy a movie.
However, with cultural changes sweeping the Kingdom, living in Riyadh, NEOM, Qiddiya, and TRSDC’s site would be more rewarding and factors such as proximity to Bahrain means nothing for Saudis today.
The only factors that would make a difference in the future for Saudis are high and competitive wages, job mobility, and a conducive environment.
As a fresh graduate, I would say no to any Aramco offer because of reasons such as what would happen if I am not happy there or my boss makes my life hell? Where else do I go to in the Eastern Province? There is nothing but Aramco and the rest are big contractors who live on Aramco’s contracts.
That does not seem very promising to me over the next decade. I can’t move to a better job in Eastern Province and I need to be enslaved to my job that I don’t love anymore or to my bad manager who will stay there until his retirement. My other best shot is to move from an oil field 80 km from my home to another one that is 250 km away and I get to see my family on the weekends or once in a while.
Yet if I move to Riyadh and join the Tourism Ministry, I will have more options to choose from by the end of the year. And that’s not all. In a few years, Riyadh will become home to many global companies who will relocate their headquarters to the capital, and as a result, endless opportunities will be available.
Therefore, the biggest problem Aramco will face in the future is that it won’t be easy for it to recruit or retain talent as they now want to be associated with Vision 2030 projects, or they aspire to join the public sector with higher salaries, more power, and prestige.
I have seen many experienced Aramco staff working in top positions in other state-owned or PIF-owned companies, and mind you, in the past five years many ministers or heads of government agencies came from Aramco.
I think creating an ecosystem that allows for greater mobility and increasing salaries would be the best hope for Aramco.
SABIC, for example, was known for its ecosystem for years, high mobility from global operations to several plants and joint ventures.
Turning to the other side to see if the grass is greener there or not, I would say cyclicity and high risks are there. The tourism industry can be impacted easily as we have seen during the pandemic. We can’t stop an act of God or the course of nature. Thus, young Saudis should not look at finding jobs but establishing careers and building experience and skill sets that they can take anywhere they might go.
A cybersecurity professional can work in Aramco or even in a hospital and a data analyst can process Aramco’s data or even work in the Agriculture Ministry to help them process data from all censures deployed in farms to experiment with new crops.
Aramco should also think about making the industry attractive to the Saudis. Although we all know that competing with Riyadh and other giga-projects will be difficult, as they plan to be top living destinations worldwide, I hope that TRSDC’s study would be an eye-opener for Aramco to win the hearts of Saudi youth in the future.
• Wael Mahdi is a senior business editor at Arab News and co-author of “OPEC in a Shale Oil World: Where to Next?” Twitter: @waelmahdi