Accelerating Workforce Development in the of Age of Digital Transformation in the Middle East

By Dr. Zerak Saleh, Chief Operating Officer, Finance @ SABB (Saudi British Bank).


We often talk about digital transformation in the perspective of supporting changing customer requirements in today’s fast and competitive environment. Yet, for most firms the existing workforce does not have the skills needed to keep up. According to the World Economic Forum’s report, “The Future of Jobs,” a very high percentage of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries’ workforce are employed in sectors that are at high risk of disruption by new digital technologies. Therefore, formulating a forward-thinking approach to the kind of training and development that can help narrow the digital skills gap and give tomorrow’s workforce the flexibility to capitalise on new opportunities and challenges is vital.


Digitalisation holds great potential for companies operating in the GCC countries, and if we get it right it can have a lasting and positive impact on individuals, companies and society as whole. Driven by modern technology and the desire to reduce dependence on oil and gas, GCC countries are engaged in large-scale national transformation and diversification plans, such as Saudi Vision 2030 and Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030. Yet, the potential to shape and capitalize on the promises of digitalisation largely rests on having an agile workforce with the right skill sets.


The disparity between skills demand and supply is not a new phenomenon for the GCC countries, as evident by the segmented labour market and the ensuing governmental mandated localisation programmes, such as Emiratisation and Saudization. However, what is different today for the educational sector, localisation institutions and the public and private sectors is the disruptive force of technological development and the challenges entailed in responding quickly enough to these changes.


To address this, GCC countries need to accelerate the development of their national workforce in technology and digital skill. After all, education and training are a pre-condition for innovation. In particular, the level of skills must reflect the development that is taking place in the industry and ipso facto in the labour market in general. Whilst most of today’s training and development decisions have focused on short-term gains, there is a strong argument for that a more integrative, proactive, and long-term approach is needed instead. Accordingly, a three-step solution is recommended that are critical for long-term resilience. Firstly, better anticipation of the skills needs is required through improved quality and use of supply and demand data. Simply investing in more skills will not be sufficient, it has to be the right skills. Secondly, a conscious move is required to speed up the transition from a one-size-fits-all standardised approach, to learning towards more individual learning paradigm. In particular, GCC countries should overhaul their education system to address the implications of the digital economy in schools, universities and localisation institutions. However, this would be impossible to achieve without collaboration between the education sector, the public sector and the private sectors. Thus, thirdly, for the educational revolution to be successful it needs to be built upon an intensive and extensive collaboration between all the relevant stakeholders.


While the implications of accelerating training and development for the GCC countries’ workforce are far reaching - even daunting, swift adjustments to the new reality and the opportunities it offers is viable, provided there is a united effort by all stakeholders.

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