The right fit

Donald Madueke looks at the petrochemical industry's job market

There is a general disconnect between the training provided by universities and the needs of the industry, filling that gap will be essential for the
There is a general disconnect between the training provided by universities and the needs of the industry, filling that gap will be essential for the

Donald Madueke looks at the petrochemical industry’s job market and the need for companies to change the way they manage employees

The debate over the availability of skilled workers in the Middle East’s refining & petrochemicals sector is one that still lacks clarity.

Some argue that there is a shortage of qualified professionals in the industry, as the world switches to renewable energy, interest in hydrocarbon engineering is said to be falling as it is replaced by newer disciplines.

But there are others in the region who actually find that there is an excess of skilled labour is in the market. With oil prices and refining margins, especially in this region, remaining particularly attractive, it’s easy to understand why young engineers may be drawn to the industry.

The truth is, however, that both schools of thought are actually right. There is indeed an abundance of recent oil & gas graduates in the region, but this wide pool of fresh graduates does not actually meet the specific needs of the region’s refining and petrochemical industries.

Evidently, there is a disconnect between the skills being developed by universities and the ones needed by the market. But there are still plenty of ways to find the right talent, but this requires knowing where to look and how to keep it when you find it.

“To attract the right talent and you must look in the right segment,” advises Roman Weidlich, director and ME regional leader for Reward practice Dubai at Towers Watson, a global HR consultancy.

In order to fill the skills gap that companies are facing, employers must first understand that there is currently a mismatch between the supply of employees and the specific skills that are in demand.

This has been caused by the discconect between the business cycle and the educational one, especially when considering the lengthy process associated with educating and training an employee.
During the educational years, technology is constantly evolving; therefore academic institutions are unable to adjust their curricula to match the changing trends and skills requirements of the industry.

The main shortages are reported amongst technicians who are able to operate new technologies and experienced workers who are capable of driving new projects.

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There is a strong correlation between economic cycles, industry employment levels and global oil prices. With the Middle East currently enjoying a rapid growth phase, numerous start-up projects and expansion plans are going on around the region.

For this reason, companies in the region are looking for operators with 10 to 15 years of experience as they are essential to support start-up and expansion initiatives. Such experience is vital at the nascent stage of any business; therefore the abundance of inexperienced graduates in the region does not solve the problem.

This begs the question; how do the region’s owners and operators respond to this lack of talent.
According to Weidlich, the responses are mixed, but there are three key steps that owners and operators can take to deal with the issue.

For most, there is the impression that their offerings are not attractive enough for new employees, so the knee-jerk reaction is to revise the compensation and benefit packages. However, competing with others on pay for a limited talent pool leads to escalation of salaries without solving the issue.

Some local companies respond to the problem by training apprentice and graduate level employees, and also by relying on their JV partners to deliver training on new technologies at overseas sites.
Another common response is the acceptance that supply of qualified professionals is limited, so companies commit to employing fresh graduates with intention of training them along side experienced employees.

It is often the case that such companies fail to deliver on their intentions, as skills transfer is a bigger challenge than they anticipate. Using experts to mentor fresh grads takes a long time and in most cases leaves new employees disengaged and likely to leave for another employer.

These issues have an overall effect on owners and operators in the region. It goes without saying that lower quality of staff means that many companies in the region operate sub-optimally. The quality of the workforce has direct impact on productivity and a company’s financial performance.

According to Weidlich, there are some basic steps a company can take to ensure that they can find, keep and nourish a competitive workforce.

First, companies must strengthen their Human Resource personnel and the internal service delivery models. Doing so will enable companies to bring the best out of their employees. It can encourage high productivity, job satisfaction and career development. Attracting the right people, engaging them and retaining them; can only be done by a department of highly skilled HR managers.

“The HR unit primarily exists to serve employees,” says Weidlich. “So the HR unit must be able to successfully deliver or implement the company’s workforce plans.” HR leadership must be able to fine-tune processes and policies that concern employees, stay up-to-date with industry changes and adjust as required. There is a need to acquire more knowledge and develop skills in this area.

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They also work with businesses and HR departments on designing talent and rewards related programmes such as job architecture, compensation and benefits succession planning, career management, change management and communication.

Once this has been accomplished, companies must then be able to clearly articulate the value propsition they provide to employees. “We strongly believe that each company has its unique employee value proposition,” says Weidlich. But how you communicate that value to a potential or exsisting employee is a very different matter. Employees must understand, and also be attracted to the benefits they will derive from working for a particular company.

This can also include non-monetary benefits such as; career progression, job security or even brand recognition. Companies should take advantage of their unique offerings. The perceived benefits of a job must be seen as also matching talents’ needs and expectations, proper segmentation and fairness are important.

Having hired the right employees and shown them the benefits of working for a company, it is also necessary to lay out a long-term retention plan especially in cases where higher retention provides a higher return on investment than constantly training new talent. Such a plan must consider the company’s growth strategy, and also the monetary and other associated costs of training employees, as well as the future output of more experienced employees.

The scope of such a retention plan will naturally vary on a case-by-case basis. It must consider a wide range of factors, ranging from specific job levels, the employee’s talent, productivity and even marital status and other criteria. The more developed the retention plan, the more likely a company is to offer a fair and attractive package that maintains employee loyalty and enthusiasm.

Understanding the key drivers of attraction, engagement and retention for key employee segments is vital. Companies that are able to articulate and effectively communicate with existing and potential employees tend to be stronger in their ability to attract, engage and retain the right calibre of people for their business.

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