Education

MENA’s green talent tree

 By Criselda Diala-McBride

Across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the renewable energy sector is predicted to attract investment of around $35 billion annually by 2020, according to the International Renewable Energy Authority (IRENA). As efforts intensify to build up this industry, demand for specialized skills is also anticipated to grow…

(Cover photo by www.qz.com)

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region’s energy labor market is undergoing a paradigm shift. Once dominated by fossil fuels, the sector has now opened up employment opportunities in the nuclear and renewable energy segments.

Since mid-2014, crude oil has lost more than 70 percent of its value. As a result, over 351,000 employees have been laid off from oil and gas production firms worldwide. Nearly half of these workers were in the oilfield services sector, according to a survey by Graves & Co.

Oil-exporting nations in the MENA region have not been immune to the contraction. In the United Arab Emirates alone, the oil and gas sector registered a 33-percent drop in online job listing as of August 2016, compared with the same period in the previous year, according to Monster.com’s latest Employment Index survey. Across the Middle East, job postings in the oil sector plummeted by 21 percent.

But increased urbanization, a growing economy and a rapidly expanding population have together placed enormous demand on electricity generation in the region, prompting governments to diversify their energy mix and pour $35 billion of investment per year into renewable energy. This renewed focus on alternative energy sources will likely shake up the job market.

Data from the International Renewable Energy Authority (IRENA) indicates that global renewable energy jobs stood at 7.7 million in 2014, an 18 percent jump from the previous year, with solar providing the most employment, at nearly 2.5 million.

Source: IRENA

A separate report by IRENA suggests that the renewable energy sector could generate an estimated 200,000 jobs in the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) region by 2030. The GCC consists of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, UAE and Saudi Arabia. This trend is expected to be seen across the wider MENA region.

Already, MENA countries are starting to localize some aspects of the renewable energy supply chain – a strategy that IRENA believes is geared towards domestic job creation.

“It is reported that 66 local companies participated in the construction of Shams 1 CSP plant in the UAE, while the 160 MW CSP project in Morocco, recently awarded to ACWA Power, targets a local content of about 42 percent,” IRENA noted.“Similarly, about 40 percent of the solar field of the CSP plant Kuraymat in Egypt was generated locally. Also, the local content reaches 20 to 30 percent of the wind farms in Egypt. It is commonly known that most of the SWH systems traded in Jordan and Tunisia are locally manufactured.”

Hadi Tahboub, president of the Middle East Solar Industry Association (MESIA), said economic growth in the MENA region has slowed down amid the oil price rout, but demand for renewable energy jobs remains steady.

“The hydrocarbons job market has been hit the hardest, with layoffs in the multiple thousands. Interestingly, green energy job recruitment is still ongoing; maybe not with significant momentum, but noticeable [nonetheless] due to an ongoing flow of solar and wind energy projects,” he said.

Infographic from Renewable Energy Market Analysis: The GCC Region

The demand for green energy jobs has been prevalent in the region for some time, due to the extensive liquefied natural gas (LNG) sector, said Robert Mogielnicki, head of PR and senior analyst at Oxford Strategic Consulting. Aside from Qatar, which is the world’s largest exporter of LNG, other large oil companies have also sought to take a slice of the LNG pie.

“Major players in the industry are increasingly turning to cleaner energy as a hedge,” he said. “In this sense, the push toward clean energy in the region is not necessarily a new or widely transformational development, though we do expect to see continued progress on this front as GCC countries continue to diversify away from their reliance on oil. Renewable energies, such as solar and wind, are also poised for growth.”

Gary Ward, operations director at recruitment specialist Hays Oil & Gas-EMEA, admitted that the over the past two years, the dramatic job cuts in the oil and gas sector were not mirrored by an equivalent surge in the number of roles available in the renewable energy sector. This lag may be explained by the fact that countries across the Middle East started their renewables initiatives some time before the oil price slowdown began, and already filled the necessary positions.

“A lot of the core skills required were already in place. If anything, some countries have slightly [taken a foot off the pedal] in some areas of renewable energy projects, as a lot were either wholly or partly funded by oil and gas revenues, which obviously have dropped,” he explained.

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However, Ward believes that the renewable energy sector will not be a major disruptor for the energy jobs market – at least in the short term.

“There is definitely a new-found focus in the energy jobs market in nuclear power stations, conventional power stations and renewable energy, such as solar [plants] and wind turbines,” he said, adding that compared with the traditional oil and gas sector, renewable energy is not as labor-intensive, either during or after construction.

Nevertheless, immediate action is required from regional governments and the private sector to develop the right skillsets in order to meet the future demands of a thriving renewable energy job market, according to Tahboub.

“Such projects need specially certified technical staff on one side, and well-experienced project financing staff [on the other]. Take Dubai Electricity and Water Authority(DEWA) as an example. To certify a solar installation, it required installers to have the appropriate related certifications,” he said.

Dubai-based recruitment agency Robbert Murray & Associates has been helping oil and gas companies in the region source talent. But in recent years, Payal Bhatia, the company’s global headhunter and business partner for MENA, said the company has also been involved in recruiting for the region’s wind and solar energy sector.

“In the last few years, we have seen [demand] mainly for B-level managers and C-level executives,” Bhatia said. “The positions that are being filled in the renewable energy sector are project managers, solar energy engineers, business development managers, energy and utilities managers, energy specialists, operations and maintenance (O&M) managers, and energy consultants.”

She added that the MENA region — as well as the rest of the world — will likely witness a gradual increase in “green jobs.” Quoting Exxon Mobil’s long-range outlook for the oil and gas sector, she said capacities for solar and wind power are expected to triple between now and 2030.

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A recent report by MESIA appears to lend credence to this theory. The Middle East Solar Outlook 2016 pointed out that 2015 had been a tipping point for solar energy in the Arab world, due to the prevalence of bids with record-low levelized costs of electricity (LCOE) for large-scale photovoltaic (PV) power plants in the Middle East, particularly in Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Some of these were as low as 5 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh).

“The low prices will rapidly change the perception of policymakers and industry leaders regarding solar technology. On an unsubsidized basis, solar is already one of the cheapest sources of electricity available — it costs less than unsubsidized nuclear, LNG, and diesel used for off-grid power — and solar prices continue to decrease rapidly,” the report said.

Solar projects in the MENA region also continue to attract hefty investment, from $160 million in 2010 to $3.5 billion in 2015.

Currently, a large portion of the MENA region’s skill base, both for construction and operation of renewable projects, comes from overseas. But Ward said there has been, and continues to be, a push towards a greater role for local skilled personnel in all aspects of the renewable energy development.

Mogielnicki agrees: “Some of the skills required by the renewable energy industry will be transferable and readily available within the region’s large supply of engineers familiar with the energy industry, while other skills may need to be taught. The key concern for Oxford Strategic Consulting, and indeed GCC governments, is how transformational industries will likely absorb national talent, transfer key skills and develop local leaders.”

about the author
Criselda Diala-McBride
Dubai-based journalist with 20 years of experience writing and editing finance, aviation, tourism, retail, technology, property and oil and gas articles for a range of print and online publications.