With Oman targeting to create 300,000 jobs in the logistics and transport industry by 2040, educational institutions in the country are introducing courses to support the sector.

With its geographical position, excellent infrastructure and a stable political climate, Oman has all the key ingredients to become an important logistics hub in the region. The government has also set its eyes on developing the country as one of the top ten logistics hubs in the world by 2040 and has developed the roadmap for it in the Sultanate Of Oman Logistics Strategy (SOLS 2040). Planned by the Ministry of Transport & Communication, SOLS 2040 has earmarked many areas that need immediate attention, but the most important of all is education.

Globalisation has shifted logistics from being a support service to a key player in international business and trade. This in turn has created the need for more standardised and sophisticated training and education for the logistics industry. According to the SOLS 2040 report, the growth of logistics in Oman is negatively impacted by an absence of trained nationals with the vocational skills that form the bulk of the employment in the sector. Though there was an absence of dedicated courses and vocational training on logistics, things are improving fast.

Warith al Kharusi, chairman, Oman Logistics & Supply Chain Association, says that in the last 12 months or so Oman has made significant strides in strengthening the logistics sector. He says, "The immediate priority at the moment is to identify the skill gaps and provide practical training to the logistics workforce, and the process of identifying the essential skills gaps has commenced."

According to the SOLS 2040 report the logistics sector currently employs 30,000 people and the aim is to employ 80,000 people in the next five years. This number is expected to touch 200,000 by 2030 and the ambition is to employ 300,000 by 2040. Seeing the potential employment opportunities offered by this industry, universities and colleges in the country have introduced science degrees and short courses solely focusing on the logistics sector.

Linking education to industry

Most of the engineering and technical courses in colleges in the country did not cover logistics and supply chain. But now things are changing gradually.

"A number of programmes has been introduced in the last few years to teach logistics and supply chain management and colleges now have standalone B.Sc and M.Sc courses. What eeds to be done now is to introduce more programmes and modules in this field," says Abdullah Said al Hajri, assistant professor at the Operations Management and Business Statistics Department in the College of Economics and Political Science at Sultan Qaboos University (SQU).

Realising the importance of the logistics sector very early, SQU was the only educational institution in the country that had a full fledged course on logistics. The university had introduced the logistics and supply chain management course in 1994, which comes under the Operations Management and Business Statistics Department. They later split the course into two - logistics management and supply chain management. Now SQU has moved a proposal to start an M.Sc course in Logistics and Supply Chain Management.

"Starting from last year we have started working on this proposal to introduce this as part of the operations management course. So students will get a major in operations management and then they get a specialisation in logistics and supply chain management. We are ready with the curriculum for logistics and have prepared the subjects and now we are waiting for feedback from the market," says Hajri, who is also one of the members of the SOLS 2040 task force.

GUTech  started its B.Sc Logistics programme in 2014 and the first batch will graduate in 2018.

Dr Halil Ibrahim Guenduez, assistant professor at the Department of Logistics, Tourism and Service Management, Faculty of Business and Economics at the university says, "Many investments in logistics infrastructure like roads, ports, airports, free zone, etc have been made in Oman but the experts in the field are mostly expats. So GUTech started the general logistics programme to create more Omani professionals in this discipline."

Guenduez states that the demand for the course has been increasing every year. The current increase in student numbers is around 40 per cent. He adds that the first batch started with 24 students of whom 21 are starting their third year. Last year, 36 students joined the course and few more joined from other programmes. This year, for the upcoming winter semester starting in September (third batch), the number of students is expected to be over 50 and can get to 60 by direct entries or further transfers from other programmes or universities.

International Maritime College Oman (IMCO) currently has about 16 logistics related modules. The government of Oman has 70 per cent ownership in IMCO and the remainder is with STC Holding Group B V, Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

Panagiotis Nikolaou, head of Port, Shipping & Transport Management Department at IMCO says that most of the modules focus on the modes and nodes of transportation as they are identified within a given network, be it road, rail, air, internal waterways or sea. The 16 logistics related modules are about the transport chain - from fleet management to resource allocation - warehousing and inventory management, modality utilisation, transport law and shipping practices for efficient and cost effective transportation of goods, amongst many other.

"The first batch of students was enrolled into a full-time Port Shipping & Transportation (PST) course in September 2005. The rationale behind starting a logistics related department within IMCO was the then apparent need for the country to diversify away from the oil and gas sectors and into other sources of income such as tourism and logistics. SOLS 2040 has been a verification of this need," says Nikolaou.

Besides this, IMCO also takes the students through simulated scenarios in Transport Chain Simulators, one of the three such simulators in the world (the other two are in Rotterdam. Furthermore, they also allow the students to spend a total of eight months in on-the-job training with companies that the college collaborate with, where they perform real roles and functions.

Although everyone including the government and education institutes have realised the importance of logistics more needs to be done to bridge the gap between education and industry.

Hajri says, "The need of the hour is a professional body to oversee training and education in this field. The body should set standards and collect data from the industry. It should also coordinate with industry and the academia to find out what the sector needs and match them to the courses being offered."

Course design

The courses at all the educational institutes are designed in consultation with the industry based on its needs at that time in the sultanate. The course structure at GUTech was established in association with RWTH Aachen University, IMCO's programmes were laid out in consultation with Europe's largest maritime and logistics training provider, the STC Group of Rotterdam. IMCO now plans to meet industry experts regularly to keep up with trends and technology. Nikolaou says that industry representatives are present during their curriculum committee meetings.

The operations department at SQU is trying to get the course accredited by the Chartered Institute of Logistics & Transport (CILT), the leading professional body for everyone who works in supply chain, logistics and transport. They are also exploring options for getting CILT membership for students when they pass out.

Hajri says, "They gave us several options and the easiest option for us is to map the subjects that we have to their curriculum without changing our curriculum. We are under the process of doing that and it will be completed hopefully by the end of this year. We are still working on the process for student membership."

Training existing workforce

Educational institutes are taking the lead and have introduced courses for the future generation. But the existing workforce needs to be trained too. SOLS 2040 taskforce members believe current academic and training staff in the logistics field must be given opportunities to upgrade their knowledge and skills. This is best achieved through academic research through collaborations with global academic and logistics industry experts. This will help enhance the quality of logistics teachers and education in Oman.

They also feel that the government must give an incentive to th current crop of logistics managers and staff to access further studies and training, including refresher courses, locally and overseas. More importantly the government must ensure companies are free to redeploy, retrain and transfer employees from one role to another without excessive bureaucratic interference.

Unattractive profession?

Andrew Basson, COO of Maharat, a specialist training provider which designs, develops and delivers tailor-made courses for clients, says that there are two persistent issues faced by students: One is not being able to find jobs and the other is the mismatch between expectations and what is on offer (an unwillingness to 'start at the bottom' culturally). He emphasised on the need to raise awareness about critical job roles in universities, colleges and training institutes to prepare the student for the professional world.

Another big challenge the sector faces is that it is not seen as a possible career choice and in some aspects such as haulage, which can be wrongly seen as not being an honourable job. Much of this stems from a basic level of ignorance about what logistics is and what are the opportunities it offers. This is apparent as much in government as it is in education.

Basson adds that logistics must be promoted as a positive career choice early on and not as a 'fallback' option if grades/university expectations are not met. "We need to redefine the understanding about logistics. It should be promoted as a profession rather than a series of task oriented jobs."

According to industry members to address the ignorance issue a widespread campaign to raise the awareness of the opportunities of a logistics career is needed at the entry level. At a very simple level, programmes and seminars are required to 'teach the teachers' throughout the country and ensure that logistics is made a serious career option for school leavers, and they have full access to information to help them with an informed decision. 

Hajri points out that countries like Singapore, the UK etc have career portals dedicated for the logistics sector and Oman should also start such an initiative as this acts as a window for connecting job seekers to the industry.

As Oman tries to diversify its economy from oil and gas, logistics has a crucial role to play as it is an enabler and cuts across all other sectors. Educational institutions in the country are waking up to the possibilities offered by this sector and designing courses for it. But to create a workforce to take up the ambitious target of 300,000 jobs set by SOLS2040, there is a need to further enhance the formal study of logistics in universities and graduate schools. 

© businesstoday 2016