The GCC countries are undergoing a major socioeconomic transformation. Digitization will be essential in this process, reinventing business models, permitting a seamless customer experience, and exploiting the potential of data.
To achieve this goal of digitization, the region will require solid foundations, including a robust digital infrastructure, an active technology sector and, perhaps most fundamentally, a workforce that is up to the task.
The availability of talent underpins everything. As companies and governments accelerate their digitization, they will rely on appropriately skilled and knowledgeable employees to execute their plans.
The dynamic works both ways. A skilled workforce empowers digitization, while a strengthened digital sector produces jobs and opportunities, which then bolster the economy and benefit society. According to a 2017 study by Strategy& (Middle East) and LinkedIn on the GCC labor market, digitization could create 1.3 million jobs regionally by 2025.
Digitization also offers flexible work models. Our research indicates that 3.9 million currently inactive women and youth could exploit self-employment opportunities in posts that are digital in nature or involve knowledge of digital technology.
Other regions have already experienced rapid growth of freelancing and the emergence of the “gig” economy. A 2013 study found there were 53 million independent workers in the US, representing 34 percent of the workforce. Among them are risk-taking entrepreneurs, who play a vital economic role by introducing innovative products and services to fill gaps in the marketplace.
However, the GCC is failing to meet the growing need for digital expertise. The Strategy& (Middle East) and LinkedIn study showed that there is a severe shortage of the digital skills that companies crave, such as statistical analysis and data mining, and algorithm design. If this imbalance between supply and demand is not rectified, the region will continue to operate at a comparative disadvantage, bereft of home-grown skills.
In 2015, the ratio of digital jobs to the total workforce was 1.7 percent in the GCC, compared with 5.4 percent in the EU.
The skills shortage has three root causes: Lack of high-quality academic training; inadequate on-the-job instruction; and a mindset that shuns digital careers, entrepreneurship and continuous learning.
GCC governments must remodel their education systems to offer the necessary digital training in universities, schools and technical institutions. Universities should include courses that focus on the latest emerging technologies, while schools should move toward a science, technology, engineering, mathematics and design approach.
Academic institutions must do more than teach about technology. They must also use it to teach. The Saudi ministry of education recently introduced a new initiative, Future Gate, to promote digital learning in schools. The scheme involves distributing iPads to students and teachers and encouraging more technology-enabled study. This year, the program has expanded to an additional 1,500 schools, and represents the first step toward the Saudi government’s goal of eliminating all textbooks in schools. Governments also need to invest substantially in the underperforming technical and vocational education and training sector. This branch of the education system has an essential part to play in equipping students with the technical skills needed by employers, and merits revitalization.
Given the constantly developing nature of technology, education cannot stop at graduation. Opportunities to upgrade digital skills and thereby enhance employability should be available throughout an individual’s entire life. The Saudi Federation for Cybersecurity, Programming and Drones recently reached an agreement with Google to set up five innovation hubs across the country. The hubs will train talented schoolchildren, students and working adults in the production of prototypes, mobile applications and artificial intelligence.
The success of all these initiatives relies to a great degree on a fundamental change in priorities in the workforce and broader population. The consumer mindset has to become a production mindset. The average person in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates consumes five hours of social media each day. Instead, young people should be encouraged to spend similar time producing high-quality digital content relevant to local and regional audiences and issues.
Too many young people opt for the established educational and professional paths of previous generations. The most recent enrolment figures demonstrate that business and economics degrees remain highly popular, with information technology lagging far behind. A safe career in the public sector is often held in higher regard than digital jobs, which tend to be associated with low-grade work.
Similarly, entrepreneurship does not enjoy the same social status as in other parts of the world. GCC countries need to encourage their citizens to pursue digital careers and new business creation through awareness programs in educational institutions, and they can encourage schoolchildren to take more ambitious, and digital, career paths. With such an educational overhaul and cultural transformation in place, a revitalized and digitally adept workforce can power the region toward its ambitious modernization.