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Connecting the divide: addressing the MENA region's skills gap

Building Services By Scott McKeever, Country Director – UAE & MENA Head of Building Services – 10 July 2023

Portrait image of Scott cropped with a view of the Dubai skyline in the background.


Scott McKeever in Cundall Dubai office

Scott McKeever

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Scott McKeever, Country Director - UAE and MENA Head of Building Services recently sat down with MEP Middle East to discuss the skills gap in the MENA region, it’s consequences and how stakeholders can play a pivotal role in bridging this gap. The article was originally published in the July edition of MEP Middle East.

Defining the skills gap in the MEP industry
According to Scott McKeever, the skills gap in the MEP industry can be divided into two interlinked categories: skills shortage and skills disparity.

“The number of people entering the industry is not meeting the demand created by the current construction boom, and we are losing people from the industry through either retirement or re-location outside our geographic area,” remarks McKeever.

There is a broader challenge in enticing individuals to pursue STEM education, specifically in the construction industry. McKeever emphasises the need to raise awareness about the industry’s lucrative career prospects and its crucial role in building a sustainable future.

“We should be visiting schools and showcasing what we do as building services engineers, and the social impact we create to inspire more children to engage with STEM subjects”

Scott McKeever

Skills disparity refers to the lack of proficiency in digital skills among existing engineers. According to McKeever, the rapid evolution of engineering necessitates the adoption of digital technologies such as Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality, and the use of design and modelling software including automation scripts and artificial intelligence. “These cutting-edge digital approaches are now part of our everyday construction professional toolkit – but not everyone has the expertise and proficiency yet,” he says.

Impact on the industry and project outcome the lack of technical skills and specialised knowledge in the MEP industry has a profound impact on the overall industry and project outcomes. Insufficient understanding and utilisation of digital engineering technologies, such as Building Information Modelling (BIM), impede progress. McKeever explains: “While building services engineering requires skilled professionals to meet MENA’s high demand for project expertise, the demanding timeframes and high expectations do not offer many opportunities for new graduate recruits to ‘cut their teeth’ and ease into the profession with small, slow projects. As a result, many companies recruit people from overseas who have that experienced background, and this exacerbates the local skills shortage.”

“There are, of course, several universities now in MENA which are offering education in this sector but the number of graduates entering the market is limited, failing to meet the industry’s needs, resulting in a persistent gap,” he adds.

A shared responsibility

McKeever stresses that addressing the skills gap is the responsibility of the entire industry, from education to businesses. Engineering companies must invest in diverse methods of attracting and retaining talent. “Relying on overseas talent to fill immediate gaps is not a sustainable strategy for ensuring that firms can evolve and innovate over the longer term, as the majority of skilled engineers from overseas will ultimately return to their home countries after a short stay in the region, taking their knowledge and experience with them.

“Well-planned and well-executed graduate programmes must, therefore, be an essential strategy for MENA engineering businesses. Enthusiastic, talented graduates bring new ways of thinking, innovation and energy, and we need to focus on attracting talent from local universities and giving them the support to become work-ready. This means finding the balance between ensuring graduates gain exposure to projects and are not ‘thrown in the deep end’ and overwhelmed by the intensity of this region’s construction sector,” he says.

Barriers to implementing effective upskilling programs

The transient working environment and high staff turnover rates in the Middle East pose challenges to implementing effective upskilling programs. As highlighted by McKeever, many skilled professionals come to MENA from overseas with the intention of gaining experience before returning to their home countries.

“This causes problems for the local talent market and is compounded by many engineering consultancies having strict requirements in terms of minimum education and experience levels for employees. Often this talent can only be found overseas, resulting in a loss of knowledge when the individuals take their new experiences and capabilities back home with them,” says McKeever. This brain drain impedes the development and innovation within the region, perpetuating the skills gap. McKeever emphasises the importance of embracing local nationalisation programs, such as Emiratisation and Saudization, to help retain knowledge and skills within the local population.

Strategies to overcome the experience gap

To bridge the experience gap, alternative education models must be adopted. McKeever advocates for the resurgence of apprenticeships in the Middle East market. Apprenticeships provide a valuable learning experience, especially when combined with online education and degree courses. “I followed this route myself into the industry; and the experience that I gained whilst working and studying at the same time gave me a different perspective on how to apply the educational aspects on projects in ‘real-time’ and led to me becoming a more rounded engineer,” says McKeever talking about his experience. Creating strong links with universities and engaging with schools are also crucial to inspiring more students to pursue STEM subjects and careers in building services engineering. McKeever believes: “We should be visiting schools and showcasing what we do as building services engineers, and the social impact we create. We need to inspire more children to engage with STEM subjects and then, hopefully, into careers in building services engineering.”

Cundall’s approach to addressing the skills gap

At Cundall, addressing the skills gap is a priority. When asked about the steps the company is taking to bridge the gap, McKeever responds: “We are exploring opportunities in our MENA offices to provide an apprenticeship route into the industry where we can offer real-world in-house engineering training alongside part-time formal education to develop emerging talent. This would provide both the formal educational aspects and the current, practical developmental skills required to become an industry- ready engineer.” Additionally, Cundall has implemented an internal digital engineering training program to continually upskill their engineers globally.

Long-term consequences of failing to address the skills gap

“If the skills gap is not adequately addressed, I am concerned that the quality of engineering designs will suffer,” says McKeever. He highlights the importance of innovation and creativity in developing sustainable engineering solutions. Failing to attract and nurture sufficient talent may lead to a stagnation of creative thinking and a return to the ‘do as we have always done’ mindset. Clients may experience design errors, a lack of engineering innovation, and increased costs for services. By investing in education and training programs, creating apprenticeship opportunities, and fostering collaboration with universities and schools, the industry can address the skills gap and pave the way for a sustainable and innovative future in building services design engineering.