New research has suggested that public sector staffing levels in the UAE are unsustainable as oil prices shrink government revenue and automation replaces the need for certain jobs to be carried out by humans.

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), government jobs account for 80 per cent of nationals employed in the GCC, which represents the highest central government wage bill (as a percentage of GDP) in the world at 9.8 per cent - nearly twice the world average and four times that of Japan.

Ahmed (who asked his real name and employer not be identified) works for the government, like so many thousands of others. He is sanguine about the impact of automation on jobs despite widespread evidence of workplace disruption from robotics and artificial intelligence. “Anyway, labour costs are low here in the Gulf so I don’t think it’s a problem for us,” he said.

However, weaning nationals away from government jobs and making them ‘future ready’ is crucial if the economies of the six-member GCC are to prosper from the march of digitisation. A new report, ‘The Future of Jobs and Skills in the Middle East and North Africa’, by the WEF pulls no punches and says the GCC is not exempt from the workplace upheaval experienced by other major economies.

Change starts with education and reconfiguring the skillset of graduates. Put simply, the region has a skills gap and needs more employees with STEMs (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) degrees to satiate the demands of technology based economies.

Kai Chan, distinguished fellow at INSEAD’s Innovation and Policy initiative, argues the emphasis should be on raising participation in data-intensive and science-based subjects in school. “Right now, the uptake of STEM degrees is very low – even when they are chosen, most of the students in the region are not globally competitive.”

Yet amid the uncertainty, there are opportunities. A white paper by IDC (a market intelligence firm for the IT sector) predicts 800,000 new jobs globally by 2021 as a result of automation but says new workforce development programmes are critical to ensure employees are prepared for the next wave of innovation.

There will be strong demand for professionals who blend digital and STEM skills with traditional subject expertise such as digital-mechanical engineers and business operations data analysts, as well as user interface experts who can facilitate human-machine interaction, says the WEF. The radical reshaping of work may also open a wider range of careers to women in areas like remote and virtual working. Still, it is not just technology that is forcing change in the GCC – socioeconomic and demographic factors will result in new occupations, a decline in others and new ways of organising and coordinating work.

If harnessed correctly, these changes will help resource-rich Gulf states diversify their economies by reducing dependence on oil and gas exports. Even so, contending the dualities of automation and socioeconomic disruption will require leadership said Nairouz Bader, chief executive officer of IIC MENA, an executive search partnership. “In the past, leadership was about clarity and clear vision: Now leadership is the ability lead in a VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity) world”.

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