Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

The hiring freeze is thawing as companies gradually regain confidence in the economy, recent job surveys reveal.

There was a 33 per cent increase in job vacancies in the second quarter of 2010 compared to the first quarter, according to a survey by global recruitment consultancy FiveTen Group.

There were 45 per cent more job vacancies in the second quarter of 2010 against the same period last year, according to the survey released in August.

Job seekers printed CVs and ironed their suits as the number of job interviews increased by 113 per cent, quarter on quarter.

The results of another survey were similar.

The Bayt.com Middle East Job Index website survey revealed that more than half of UAE companies were planning to hire between August and October, with 29 per cent "definitely hiring" and 25 per cent "probably hiring".

Mark Baxter, regional director of the FiveTen Group, attributed the growth in job vacancies to confidence in the economy as global trade increased and rising oil prices brought benefits to the region.

Continuing progress on Dubai World's debt restructuring had dampened concerns that the debt would not be repaid, and strengthened business confidence, he added.

"There is more optimism and growth with the government supporting the economy and investing in infrastructure, resulting in more confidence and people returning to the region," he told Gulf News.

"It has been tough, but it looks better now."

The top hiring sectors are financial services, IT and the telecom industries, the FiveTen Group survey revealed. "Hiring in the financial services is always a good economic indicator," Baxter said. "We are recruiting at the senior levels — Dh45,000 to Dh50,000 and above — in legal, HR and marketing. So it's fairly strategic roles that were on thin in ground in the UAE. That's where the cuts came from before and that's where the vacancies are now."

Marketing jobs were also on the rise to "help with growth and to put things on the map," Baxter said.


"A lot of organisations were stretched thin with cutbacks last year. The roles we are recruiting now are more important in line with the growth in the economy."

Job vacancies did not necessarily mean talent would be hired from the UAE, but Baxter remained optimistic.

"As the region peaks, Arabic speakers are becoming essential for organisations. People here on the ground have an advantage and have local knowledge. People here will get an opportunity to be hired without a doubt," he said.

Jobseekers should expect a "tougher screening process" and for packages to be "tweaked" as organisations are being selective, given the high number of applicants. "There's an element of window-shopping, coming out of the recession. Companies want the best people, so interview rates are slightly higher. Companies are much more particular now," he said.

More than half of companies in the Middle East and North Africa are planning to hire from August to October, the bayt.com survey showed.

In the GCC, the food sector is expected to become one of the biggest employers, according to Dulsco HR Solutions.

"That's the industry that is booming now and seeing growth. Employees are looking for jobs here because even in the downturn there [was] no impact on the food industry, people are investing in it," said Valerian D'Souza, general manager of Manpower Services, a division of Dulsco.

The UAE has committed $1.4 billion (Dh5.1 billion) in aggressively promoting food investments. The country now has over 150 food processing plants, according to recent Dubai World Trade Centre figures.

Manpower Services has deployed 15-20 per cent of its manpower to the food industry and expected to recruit another 20 per cent in 2010-2011, D'souza said.

The demand was for production line and packaging workers for factories in the free zones and the halal food industry, he added.

The UAE's multicultural population and the number of fast food chains and restaurants opening in malls had contributed to the "surge" in demand for food and food-handling employees, he added.

Economic recovery

Amer Zureikat Bayt.com website's spokesperson and vice-president of sales, said next year was expected to bring "tremendous possibility and opportunity" for the UAE and regional professionals as employers were finally looking into "upgrading and top-grading their companies' talent pool."

In the UAE, 44 per cent of employers said the local job market was "much more attractive" than in neighbouring countries — second to Saudi Arabia, according to the survey.

"Expat professionals continue to be drawn by the tax-free earnings, cosmopolitan lifestyle, weather, beaches, leisure facilities, world-class infrastructure and chance to participate professionally in landmark projects in a region that is still relatively new and still brimming with momentum and possibility," Zureikat added.

The top employers now were banking and finance (39 per cent), construction (35 per cent), telecommunications (35 per cent) and the oil and gas industries (33 per cent).

Solid brand building

Though finance and construction were among the most worrisome sectors, Zureikat said they had built a "solid brand" for themselves as industries that were capable of attracting and retaining top talent even during the recession.

"We have seen that even while companies in these sectors downsized in recent years, much world-class top pedigree talent was retained and replacement talent for strategically key positions was hired with top requirements and expectations," he said.

The top positions currently in demand are junior executives (34 per cent), followed by executive (27 per cent) and senior executive positions (26 per cent).

"Top management positions, as expected, are less sought by employers but there remains a healthy demand for such senior executive talent: vice-president (4 per cent), president (4 per cent), senior vice-president (3 per cent)," Zureikat said.

The skills most in demand by employers were good communication in Arabic and English (at 59 per cent of votes); team spirit, co-operation and flexibility (49 per cent), trustworthiness and honesty (45 per cent), good leadership skills (43 per cent), and the ability to work under pressure (40 per cent), the survey indicated.

The survey revealed that hiring expectations for 2011 looked positive as 64 per cent of employers said they planned to hire in a year from now — with 30 per cent "definitely" hiring and 34 per cent probably hiring, the survey revealed.

The results of the two surveys did not come as a surprise to Philippe Dauba-pantanacce, Standard Chartered's senior economist for the Middle East and North Africa.

"I would definitely argue that from a macro-economic perspective it is indisputable that things are going much better than a year before. There is a low-base effect and a catch-up effect," he said.

Factors driving the upward hiring trend were the increase in the number of hotels opening in the UAE this year, the growth in retail activity, and the rise in oil prices by 50 to 60 per cent in 2010 compared to last year — wealth that trickled down to the rest of the economy, he said.

"There are a few sectors that people focus on, real estate and construction, that have a muted outlook to say the least. But that should not overshadow that global trade is picking up slowly and surely, which means that Jebel Ali and the logistics community in Dubai pick up as well. And we've heard stellar figures from the airports," he said.

"All this indicates a pick-up in activity, though let's put things into perspective — we're far from the 2008 figures," Dauba-pantanacce said.

But this meant the economy was picking up at a "measured, moderate pace" rather than a "one quarter burst of activity", he said.

The government was controlling public finance in a more "conservative" way and growth was manageable, he added.

Looking ahead he underlined the need for economic diversification to boost employment because non-oil activities generated more jobs than the oil sector.

 Slow pace of hiring

Despite the sunny outlook for employment forecasts by regional and international reports, few companies are actually hiring now, according to local human resource consultancies.

"There have been no enquiries from clients looking for candidates to hire as of now. There is little hiring going on at the moment. Since the recession started everyone is in such a state they are trying to complete their work with fewer employees," said Mukesh C.R., a human resources executive at Dubai-based business consultancy Morison Menon.

Hiring dropped "drastically" since April 2009 with fewer company formations and existing companies reluctant to invest in manpower, he said. "The pace at which hiring used to be has slowed down. There hasn't been efficient company growth to let them hire people," said Dr Khalid Maniar, founder and managing partner of business consultancy Horwath Mak.

Employment has seen a slight upward trend since the start of 2010 only in certain growing or stable industries like the food sector and hospitals, he added.

While recent job surveys indicated that the finance sector is one of the top employers now, some senior bank executives disagree.

According to Shaikh Abdul Karim, senior vice-president of Sharjah Islamic Bank, hiring is "still slow" in the banking sector.

There are no new vacancies offered except where old positions need to be filled when employees resign or retire, he said.


Sectoral assessments

Senior executives in the top hiring industries talk about the latest employment trends in their fields.

We are recruiting yes, at all levels, management and operative. Basically we had frozen recruitment for a year-and-a-half to two years. As a result of natural atrophy, where some people left or retired or got laid off, there were no replacements [and] we weren't in a position to feel confident. We are recruiting now since [July]. HR is busy. We managed to secure five or six contracts in the UAE which are leading this employment drive… due to a hiring freeze, we need to replenish our staff."

"I don't think the industry is seeing tremendous growth, the total volume in turnover in construction I don't see it as significantly increasing. There is not that much work around."

"Construction [topped the job surveys] because it is a major sector, it will rank top at anything, even if it is hiring modestly it will be up there, because it is a major sector."

"The UAE has identified real estate and construction as major components of developing the country. But there is a temporary lull due to restructuring, the crisis, and companies getting their act together ..."

- Bishoy Azmy
Chief executive officer of ASGC Contracting

After a global recession where companies have been cutting costs wherever possible, including staff and training, we are now faced with a skills shortage while world demand for energy has grown. This problem has been exacerbated by the poor image of the industry and poor recruitment efforts in the 1990s and early 2000s. As a result we are experiencing very few younger and experienced professionals, so the average age of the industry's workforce is very high with many set for retirement in the near future."

"Asia is taking steps to bridging this gap that we are being confronted with, by training new graduates in the oil and gas industry."

-Badr Jaafar
Executive director of Crescent Petroleum Group

In general employment is slow, very slow, because of the financial crunch. But there is hiring for replacement in important jobs where people are resigning on their own or crossed the age limit. There are some critical positions created ... In the first half of this year, profit figures of most banks were much lower compared to last year. It will take some time, two to three years for recovery. We always hope for the best. It's an expat economy, so if it falls it won't just affect expats but also their families and their economies.

There is employment in senior and critical positions. But overall, how many bank branches are opening? Very few, rather some branches are closing. Some are improving their internet and phone service, so the more [the] technology improvement, the less [the] employment.

-Shaikh Abdul Karim
Senior vice-president of Sharjah Islamic Bank

The financial services sector is starting to gear up for growth. It is looking to acquire good talent and from the lessons learnt from the last few years it is about quality over quantity. There are vacancies for those who understand the market. What they are doing is bringing in key talent at executive and management levels and key roles for clients. The jobs for lower ranks will come when the strategies have been deployed. Until then there won't be flocks of people hired, just key people to strategise and execute strategies in the next 18 months. Will it be a direct contributor or not to recovery? It's about being prepared when confidence grows so your bank can capitalise on that market."

"It's a more optimistic average outlook for people to increase their career opportunities but it is not immediate."

"I think there's a window of opportunity with markets across the world being depressed to hire good quality people in the UAE who did not think of it as a potential market previously."

Steve Williams
Chief executive officer of Gulf Finance

The employment outlook for executives and other workers in the regional IT industry still looks good. Our hiring trends at Microsoft continue to be strong in the UAE over the last quarter and last year, with our year-on-year hiring numbers continuing to increase steadily. Many of our current positions are mid-career-level individual-contributor roles, however there will be some mid-level management roles as well this year.Factors [driving employment] range from specific talent to investments in that particular industry. In the UAE, companies continue to look at technology as a strategic and critical business investment. As IT spend continues to grow and IT itself continues to evolve, it opens up avenues for job opportunities ..."

 Charbel Fakhouri
Regional general manager of Microsoft Gulf

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