Skills That Really Matter

Over the past 20 years, economies and the organization of work have witnessed a fundamental change in which occupations have become more complex and employees’ responsibilities have been linked more with competencies than with routine.

This change has necessitated more flexibility in labour mobility and productivity, and enhanced innovative capacity of companies to assimilate new production technologies rapidly and adapt themselves timely to new demands of the market. In response to these shifts, new methods for occupational analysis and recognition are being deployed by leading organizations across the globe to remain competitive.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member countries are experiencing continuing and fast-paced economic growth. For their sustainability, access to a more highly-skilled and competent workforce; a workforce which can help advance its international and regional competitiveness of its economy is crucial. Further, given their collective vision of diversifying economies away from oil, it requires the Middle East economy to operate in a more globally competitive and constantly changing environment.

To address this, the region increasingly requires an adaptable and highly skilled, educated and qualified workforce.

To build such a workforce the regions, like many other progressive countries, are working to develop and establish world class responsive education and training systems that are both nationally and internationally recognised, and to establish an underpinning national qualifications system.

Within the region there are often already well-established arrangements in place for the Higher Education and General Education sectors, with specific improvements underway to raise quality. However, in Vocational Education and Training (VET) much work is now focusing, in consultation with industry, on developing this sector aiming to connect education and training systems to workplace needs. For example Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the UAE are heavily investing in building world class VET systems comparable to international practices.

An increasing international approach that the region has considered and adopted with respect to the VET sector, is to invite industry stakeholders (e.g. employers, employees,

regulators and other associated technical experts practitioners) to formally codify their workplace requirements in the form of national occupational skills standards (NOSS), aligned in most instances to an approved or developing national qualifications framework (NQF), and underpinned by national occupational profiles that are linked to the well-recognised and established International Standards Classification of Occupations (ISCO) and International Standards Industry Classification (ISIC) systems.

NOSS are increasingly used across many parts of the world as the critical mechanism for bridging the growing gap between workplace learning, technology and innovation with old economy institutions of education and training. The latter have often been found to have been unable to keep up their training outcomes and training provision with the pace of change in the workplace, nor reflected such in occupational competence and currency of their teachers/trainers. Often, they have relied on employing highly educated theoretical subject matter experts as teachers, who have little experience, workplace competence or currency in the occupational area they are teaching.

Thus, the NOSS have often been introduced as the preferred medium for recognising, via formal assessments by a recognised and licensed organization (e.g. VET provider or employer), competent performance of individuals leading to the issuance of a national qualification related to their respective work, by the licensed organization. For the country they act as a mechanism for tooling up and measuring a nation’s human capital. For organizations, they are used in their human resources, recruitment, re-skilling and retention policies, processes and practices.

The introduction of these international and national occupational and industry classification and standards systems have often coincided with the establishment of a national qualifications framework (NQF) in a country augmented by regulatory arrangements that formally recognise national qualifications aligned to the approved framework, and based on NOSS. These national qualifications are classified into a framework of learning outcomes comprised of hierarchical levels of complexity and competence, and on achievement by an individual, a national qualification issued by a licensed organization.

These national frameworks too, are often aligned to an emerging series of international meta-frameworks such as the European Qualifications Framework (EQF) and soon to be completed GCC meta-qualifications framework. The advent of these qualifications frameworks, gives rise to a publicly explicit base and central country reference tool for comparing, organizing and managing qualifications, and identifying their intended and interrelated outcomes with occupational skills requirements at an international, national, local and organizational level.

The introduction of NQFs and NOSS as explicit national outcome reference tools for relevant occupations is a blessing for organizations and employers. They now have at their disposal national benchmarking resources linked to international benchmarks, for which they can align their workforce career development and classifications systems to.

Important to note is that many countries have already introduced such national qualifications frameworks. They include all of the UK countries, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Ireland. They introduced them as a lead mechanism to reform their education and training systems and enhance international attractiveness and competitiveness of available skills in their country. In all, more than 50 countries have now in place or are proceeding to work towards implementing their NQF. Mos EU countries have developed national frameworks, or are in the process of doing so to ensure alignment with the emerging trend to develop ‘meta-frameworks’ that link national systems of qualifications, such as the European Qualifications Framework (EQF).

In the GCC region, the UAE recognised the imperative of establishing a national qualification framework, and has establishe d a ten (10) level qualifications framework, known as the QFEmirates. It is a singular, coherent qualifications framework covering

training and general education (GE) sectors with an agreed classification system of new qualifications, which will be nationally and internationally recognised. The establishment of a national qualifications framework ensures the UAE is well placed to align and compare its qualifications with that of other national qualifications frameworks and meta-frameworks. Similarly, Bahrain has but developed and adopted a NQF with a nine level framework. Other GCC members are in the processes of embarking on the same.

The important point here is, that the establishment of these international and national benchmark resources and systems provides a national resource for users, particularly organizations. It affords them an essential and central building block to progress their organizational and respective development activities. It improves the prospects for enhanced synergies and consistency in the recognition of same occupation across relevant stakeholders (organizations). That is, whether it be employers seeking to develop job descriptions, undertaking workplace reform or managing and planning employee careers, or institutions looking to identify future programs that align and link with growth in the labour market. It may be in research activities or compliance regimes that seek to identify occupational linkages.

GCC-member country leaderships have recognised the international trends that are required to stay competitive and are inaugurating, by way of response, establishment of their respective national benchmark resources. In return, it is fair to suggest that it is now encumbered on organizations to play their part in becoming familiar with them and use them in their HR activities. These national resources directly relate to career development and provide the ‘national platform of common language’ that can be used to communicate outwardly and inwardly by all concerned about career development; particularly organizations, governments, regulators and agencies, communities and individuals.

Organizations need to become more familiar with these nationally developed resources, get involved in their development, and use them as the medium for communicating outwardly when advertising jobs and communicating with institutions and universities, as well as using them for recruitment, re-skilling and retention. In this way, all stakeholders including job seekers and the community are better equipped and armed with quality and consistent information to interpret and recognise commonly used job titles, job requirements and corresponding qualifications.

Better understanding by all will enhance job seekers better matching with available jobs and give an improved understanding of job requirements leading to improved productivity, efficiency and safety. It will also increase the prospects that organizations will start to be more proactive and explore options to review and improve their work organization practices and technology within their business as a core process in their workforce development strategies, practices and metrics, and in turn better understand the quality of available labour and skills pool in the community.

By increasing their use and reference to these national benchmarks, through key stakeholders such as employers, government and their agencies/regulators, institutions and associated bodies, community understanding, recognition and acceptance will be vastly improved. They act, as well, to help build confidence in the market place of the role and scope of occupations in the labour market and the economy. Moreover, the guidelines perform as a central reference point for building and contextualising relevant outcomes and requirements for the nation, the organization and the individual.

For organizations to stay competitive in the region and to attract and retain quality workers requires a greater understanding of what interfacing HR and career development resources are available outside the business, how they can be used to benefit the business, and how changes to work organization can be engineered to provide increased responsibility to workers down the organizational ladder leading to improved performance, growth and profitability.

Old hierarchical and work organization philosophies and practices will not suffice and organizations that remain stagnate

and do not recognise the organization’s core

skills of its human resources are destined to be surpassed by those that do.

Organizations need to identify what national resources and tools are available to adopt, adapt and use to help them identify and promote comparative performance, attract the right individuals, improve individuals’ clarity in job and responsibility levels, and align individual effort with organizational goals and targets.

There are several challenges for stakeholders:

For organizations:

– Have organizations equipped their Human Resource departments and business unit managers with the understanding and capability to engage with these new systems?

– Can they develop the strategic action plans to take advantage of the opportunities that are now available that can lead to improving productivity, efficiency and safety?

For governments:

– Can governments and their ministries and agencies properly and effectively promote, engage and build awareness of the infrastructure and resources they have established amongst industry, the community and individuals?

– Can they effectively and quickly implement and continue to improve the new infrastructure and resources, associated regulations and processes underpinning?

For training providers:

– Are training providers in the vocational education and training (VET) sector equipped within their organizations to identify and recruit occupationally currently competent personnel for the delivery of training and assessment of competence against the NOSS, for given occupations?

– Can they acquire and deploy up to date equipment, course materials and resources to appropriately reflect modern or future workplaces, or more to collaborate with employers to allow training and assessment to occur directly in the workplace?

These challenges may initially appear easy to attend to, however, they require deep consideration and quality leadership. The latter is imperative, as roll-out and implementation is often led by government. They can provide the catalyst to facilitate the change and reforms that are required and needed, to assure respective countries have within their skills pool highly qualified workers, in order to remain competitive in the longer term and enhance the wellbeing of their people. Whilst the international and national resources are slowly being assembled, the quality and speed of implementation by respective stakeholders in country will determine if they remain competitive now and for the longer term.

However, the continued roll-out, expansion and enhancement of the international and national systems by more and more countries is evidence that there are many supporters and considerable benefits to be realised. Leaders of the GCC-member countries for their part have led the development of respective systems, what is needed is the involvement, take up and commitment by proactive stakeholders and organizations.

Tony Palladino is the Principal Consultant at Al Rakha Management Consultancy, Abu Dhabi , UAE. Tony has over 20 years experience in human resources, industrial relations and organisational management and development, as well as labour market integration with TVET and education and training provision and leadership.