May 01 2012
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Building the brains behind the boom
Qatar-based organisations are seeing increased value in partnering with a vibrant local academic community
While the broad goals of the National Economic Vision 2030 are similar to those of Qatar's Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) neighbours, Doha's emphasis on moving towards a 'knowledge economy' is gradually, and impressively, taking shape.
"A healthy economy must be based on diversity and Qatar is no exception," says Abdelwahab Aroussi, a professor of engineering at Qatar University , one of a raft of academic institutions in the country leading the drive towards greater intellectual input in the local economy.
To improve the educational level of Qatari nationals, a new Higher Education Institute was established to facilitate post-secondary scholarship programmes. Significantly, to lend intellectual gravitas to the country the government made overtures to leading international academic and research institutes, inviting them to set up satellite campuses in Education City, a purpose-built facility on Doha's outskirts. A comprehensive reform of Qatar University , the country's largest higher education establishment, was also launched.
Like its counterparts elsewhere in the Gulf, Qatar's energy industry remains heavily dependent upon imported specialist expertise to run its complex processing plants. By inviting renowned international academic institutions into the country, the country hopes to one day wean the industry off foreign expertise and technology and replace it with locally-developed resources.
On the face of it, this may not be easy. Nationalisation schemes to get more GCC citizens into private sector jobs have a mixed track record to date, and the mindset of young Qataris suggests this is unlikely to change soon.
According to a recent survey on entrepreneurship trends in Qatar, nearly 60 per cent of Qatari nationals between the ages of 15 and 29 still preferred to work in government jobs, against just eight per cent in private business and 13 per cent in self-employment. Qatar one day hopes up to 50 per cent of the workforces of energy companies in the country will be locals, illustrating the scale of the task at hand.
"We have the obvious problems that there is a smaller pool of people and these individuals require the necessary motivation to pass through the educational process," admits Professor Aroussi.
A sense of urgency is now emerging in Qatar's energy sector about the need to develop local talent, especially as industry warnings of a pending global talent shortage - particularly of skilled engineers - grow louder.
"The development of local talent in energy resource-rich countries is a key way forward for the global energy industry in assisting to avert a talent shortage crisis," says Walter Green, the head of training and development at ORYX GTL , a Company which manufactures environmentally-friendly 'gas-to-liquid' (GTL) fuels in Ras Laffan Industrial City, north of Doha.
Professor Aroussi says the complexity of the energy industry dictates the 'need to recruit and develop Qataris to a standard comparable with their counterparts around the world."
Some progress is being made. Approximately 5,500 Qataris are now said to be permanently employed in the local energy and industrial sectors, and a further 4,000 are currently being trained. But this is unlikely to be enough to meet long-term needs.
Experts agree that the onus is on industry to engage more closely with the academic world to ensure a steady supply of suitably qualified expertise in future. They say if importing foreign expertise is to be avoided, persuading young Qataris that an energy career is attractive, exciting and rewarding is paramount.
"The energy industry has done a relatively poor job in recent decades communicating the excitement and reward the field offers over the length of a career, but it can no longer wait for a supply of young graduates to come knocking on their doors," ORYX GTL 's Green reflects.
Professor Aroussi believes engagement with students must begin at an early age, perhaps in high school, when career ideas are being formed.
Qatar University 's Gas Processing Centre (GPC) - a facility set up in 2007 by a consortium of gas-related companies in Qatar to help encourage a more knowledge-based approach to industrial development - runs a schools outreach programme which aims to do just that.
Called 'Gasna' (Arabic for 'Our Gas') - the programme breaks down barriers between complex industrial concepts and young people, presenting a softer edge to a technically-demanding business.
"Young people need role models and success stories and the diversification of the economy will only happen when you really have a flexible pool of labour who can flex between different occupations in different sectors," Professor Aroussi, who is also GPC's director, says of the outreach programme.
In many ways the GPC is symbolic of how Qatari industry is benefitting academia, and vice versa. Funded by the Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF), Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP), local industry and institutions as well as international funding agencies, it sees itself as a unifying body for Qatar's energy sector.
"It [the GPC] is developing physical and human capabilities and acting as a catalyst for collaboration between industrial partners and academics," Professor Aroussi explains. "It is not just a matter of GPC having access to top academics and researchers - our greater challenge is to develop a range of research initiatives, training and outreach programmes," he adds.
He points out that, like the university's Environmental Study Centre and the Material Technology Unit, the GPC typifies the active engagement of the gas industry in Qatar to build a centre to serve the nation.
For its part ORYX GTL - a joint venture between state-owned Qatar Petroleum and South African energy giant Sasol - sponsors the academic chair at Qatar University 's Department of Mechanical Engineering. By managing interns, providing summer training and other programmes closely associated with its business, the Company benefits in return from research carried out by university students at its high-tech plant in Ras Laffan, which turns natural gas into ultra-clean fuels which are in increasing demand globally.
However it is with renowned engineering institution Texas A&M University (TAMUQ) - considered one of the top research universities of its kind in the US - that ORYX GTL 's links with academia are perhaps most firmly entrenched.
TAMUQ's Doha campus was established specifically to develop local engineering programmes and train students in the main engineering disciplines.
"[TAMUQ] students are involved in research and development, which is an important driving force behind the commercialisation of cutting-edge GTL [gas-to-liquids] technologies," says
Dr Nimir Elbashir, assistant professor of chemical engineering at TAMUQ.
"Applied research imparts knowledge about how to improve technology to enhance the market value of GTL products, which obviously has long-term ramifications for the industry and broader economy," he adds.
Dr Elbashir insists that Qatari undergraduates are playing their part in this process.
"They are willing to accelerate their learning processes by devoting more time to research. This is a good sign that they are prepared to engage with industry," he notes. "Qatar is pioneering the world's most advanced commercial gas technologies, so is a very attractive place for scientists wanting to make a difference. It is a very dynamic environment," he remarks.
It is also a highly supportive environment. Qatar Foundation, for example, provides generous funding to support study and research in specialist fields such as gas processing, which adds to the sense of opportunity in the country.
Keen to enhance their local image and reinforcing their corporate social responsibility credentials, many private sector companies, publically at least, express commitment to hiring more locals. Speaking recently as his company announced it would double its local workforce of 400 within two years, Siemens Middle East chief executive Erich Kaeser said Qatar's rapid economic growth made the development of local talent of 'utmost importance'.
"As our business continues to be on a steep upward trajectory in Qatar, we want to hire, train and develop capable talent in Qatar," says Martin á Porta, the chief executive of the Company's Qatari unit.
Yet even if the energy sector is successful in attracting Qataris, retaining them is another story. ORYX GTL 's Green warns that employers must provide multiple opportunities for career development, meeting employees' aspirations and ensuring that core competencies continue to grow and are rewarded for doing so - especially in the technical side of the business.
With an increasingly collaborative yet competitive academic environment in Qatar, there are signs that meaningful steps towards a 'knowledge economy' are being taken, a move warmly welcomed by academics in the country.
"Any wise man will tell you that monopoly breeds mediocrity and the presence of these [academic] institutions is very healthy for Qatar's future and its quest for excellence," he concludes.
© The Gulf 2012
© Copyright Zawya. All Rights Reserved.
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