Digital upskilling key to MENA economic revival

4 min read
Digital skills have become indispensable to businesses in post-pandemic world. AFP
  • An independent survey of Middle East CEOs conducted by Price Waterhouse Coopers in 2020 revealed that 70 percent believe that a lack of digital skills is a threat to their business
  • A recent report by Korn Ferry, the US management consulting firm, predicts a global talent shortage of more than 85.2 million people by 2030

With the economy in the Middle East and North African region facing dual economic shocks from the COVID-19 pandemic and the decline of oil prices, digital platforms are becoming ever more necessary.

The collapse of public life has accelerated the demand for digital, virtual, and remote learning and working solutions to develop skills and ensure chances for individuals to earn a living.

This essential need, however, is not being met in the region. In fact, the MENA region is missing out on real-time digital development prospects except for some countries in the GCC which are leading the way towards encouraging an economy based on technological innovation. 

The Gulf countries are undoubtedly the most advanced in terms of digital transformation. However, there is still a significant digital skills gap. In a 2020 survey  of the CEOs in the Middle East by Price Waterhouse Coopers, 70 percent said the unavailability of essential digital skills is a business threat.

Importance of developing digital skills

A recent report by Korn Ferry, the US management consulting firm, predicts that the demand for skilled workers will outstrip supply, resulting in a global talent shortage of more than 85.2 million people by 2030.

Rodrigo Castello

The skills gap may worsen before it improves. According to an International Labor Organization (ILO) research, the global youth unemployment rate has risen between 1991 (9.3 percent) and 2018 (12.8 percent). In the Middle East, the percentage has remained stubbornly high at 26.1 percent, more than double the global average.

In light of the pandemic, the demand for software engineers has expanded to assist businesses in reacting to the rising demand for online services for both their customers and employees. In this era of “digital urgency,” bridging the IT skills gap is critical to meeting the demands for speed and adaptation.

According to Rodrigo Castello, Vice President Middle East & Africa at OutSystems, platform for developing mobile and web enterprise applications, “digital transformation is no longer an option; it is now a requirement.”

“The Middle East has been adopting and embracing digital transformation; nevertheless, this has resulted in additional technology-related employment openings. Decision-makers from around the region were polled, and many acknowledged great difficulties filling these positions.” he said.

“As the demand for software engineers grows in the MENA area, particularly in the UAE, the talent pool has dwindled. As a result, it cannot meet the growing demand for complex software that meets the needs of modern businesses. This is a problem that, if not handled promptly, might result in a considerable imbalance between demand and supply for software development personnel”, Castello further told TRENDS.

On the other side, regional talent development will help the shortage of tech talent and reduce the unemployment rate. This is done with a long-term goal of embracing the digital economy and becoming one of the leaders in digital transformation.

“Dubai has begun a campaign to attract 100,000 coders. OutSystems contributes to this, as all our virtual training programs are free, and we collaborate with several colleges to expand the local talent pool. This program is open to any university,” he said.

Challenges and difficulties

The knowledge and skills gap is a rising issue in practically every corner of the world. It is a stark reality for business communities and recruitment firms in the Middle East.

Researchers have found that technological innovation has widened the skills gap in most economic sectors.

On the other side, analysts at Gartner have found that IT spending is accelerating ahead of revenue expectations in 2021, with C-suite leaders much more willing to invest in technology with a clear tie to business outcomes. Therefore, this talent gap must be plugged by empowering more individuals to learn about and apply the latest innovations in their domains.

However, due to the quick rate of technological change, even developers who have only been out of college for a few years can fall behind when it comes to the newest and best tools and languages.

Castello said that the organizations must urge IT to take the lead in a time when a digital transformation is no longer an option but a must, pointing out that with technology at the heart of most firms’ operations, Chief Information Officers must focus their efforts on educating existing human resources in the correct areas.

Moreover, entrepreneurs must acquire digital abilities to stay ahead of the game, and companies must push IT to take the lead, as technology is now at the heart of most business operations.

The adoption and nurturing of digital skills within the region will help boost all sectors through the digitalization of various services, which will assist in streamlining processes, thus benefiting from the advantages of newer technologies, and increasing profits.

Finally, closing the digital divide will involve bridging the gap between what is taught in classrooms and the IT skills required in today’s job. This, in turn, will help the region by lowering unemployment rates, enhancing the local ICT talent ecosystem, and propelling long-term development of all industries in the region.