According to McKinsey, more than 50% of the global working population is at risk of automation. The Middle East ranks comparatively with the percentage of work activities that could be automated by adapting current technologies in countries such as the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia estimated at 47% and 46% respectively. In addition to this global change, the economy in the Middle East is also in transition, shifting away from natural resources to technology and innovation and driven by a highly-skilled workforce.
As workplace automation and artificial intelligence (AI) start to shape global agendas, the need for lifelong learning has never been more pressing. Experts agree that education and employee training must keep pace with technological change or risk creating skill gaps and inequality.
Global online learning platform Coursera recently announced its expansion into the Middle East region with the launch of its enterprise platform “Coursera for Business”, which partners with leading government and private organizations on their workforce development goals. The enterprise learning solution helps companies meet modern business challenges by developing business, technology and data skills, drawn from a course catalogue designed and delivered by 170 of the world’s top universities and industry educators, many of which are offered with Arabic subtitles or with full translation in order to be more accessible to a regional audience.
“Every country, company and individual is facing a skills shortage that puts him or her at risk of remaining competitive in the changing economy,” says Leah Belsky, vice president of enterprise at Coursera For Business. “Technology is advancing faster than humans, which means that many people cannot easily adapt and acquire the skills required to do emerging jobs.”
Urgency around upskilling is a global one, but skills performance looks a little different for each country. According to Coursera’s recently released Global Skills Index, the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia are lagging across technology, business and data science domains.
Even though they’re behind on a global scale, both countries reveal skill strengths in particular technical skills: machine learning is the U.A.E.’s best performing competency within data science at 42%, and human computer interaction is Saudi Arabia’s best performing competency within technology at 92%.
Coursera has a growing community of 170,000 learners in the U.A.E. and two million learners in the Middle East. As Belsky explains, “Among our U.A.E. learners, courses within the business, data science, and technology domains have the highest number of enrollments, which reflects what we see among learners globally. Learners want to acquire those in-demand career skills, which then drive innovation and uplift the economy.”
Founded by Harvard University and MIT in 2012, edX is an online learning destination and massive open online course (M.O.O.C.) provider with 19 million global learners, offering courses from universities and institutions around the world. According to edX CEO and MIT Professor Anant Agarwal, the worldwide global skills gap issue is largely a result of rapid changes in technology.
“These changes are requiring advanced knowledge in new and in-demand fields, which for many individuals out in the workforce require skills and training that didn’t exist or wasn’t offered when they were in school,” says Agarwal. “Although there is a need for upskilling, there are also challenges associated with the investment of time and money required to gain this knowledge through traditional learning programs. In many cases, on-campus programs cannot support the volume of interest and demand in key topic areas.”
edX offers online Master’s degree programs, MicroMasters programs and a variety of targeted courses in the most in-demand fields allowing learners to continuously reskill and upskill, making themselves more indispensable for the evolving job market. Examples of edX offerings in evolving tech industries include; UC San Diego’s Machine Learning Fundamentals, Artificial Intelligence with Columbia University, Blockchain for Business by The Linux Foundation and UC Berkeley’s introduction to Bitcoin and Cryptocurrencies.
In the global climate of upskilling the workforce, recruitment agencies are also offering online or e-learning courses to ensure jobseekers stay competitive in today’s environment. Staffing specialists Robert Half offer their candidates access to over 8,000 online courses on topics including accountancy, finance, auditing, administration, HR, technology and project management and a range of skill-based training, such as communication and risk management.
As Gareth El Mettouri, associate director at Robert Half U.A.E., explains, “The required competencies for roles are evolving as digitalization, A.I. and robotics are forcing the jobs that we know today to develop and advance. This offers individuals more opportunities to acquire new skills such as business insight, communication skills or strategic thinking that are no longer ‘optional’ in the workplace of the future, but necessary.”
Technological advancement and the positive influence of automation are already evolving in accounting and finance departments, enabling teams to adopt more valuable and fulfilling business partnering roles. However, despite the positive progression, this has not come without its challenges.
Insights from Robert Half’s Finance 2020: Closer Than You Think report highlight that accounting and finance professionals need to retrain and learn new approaches, particularly in soft skills such as effective leadership and communication.
“Employers have to look at the skills and training they are offering their employees more closely and try to maximise these options for retention purposes as well,” says Mettouri. “Candidates today are wise to the fact that the workplace is changing, and they are keen to work for an organisation that is willing to support them with their desire for lifelong learning.”
“A positive approach to workplace automation that combines education and experimentation will allow employees to see automation in action and reduce misconceptions and concerns,” he adds. “Ultimately, those who embrace digital transformation and the automation it brings will have the chance to build a sustainable competitive advantage, whilst attracting and retaining the very best employees in the long-term. As soon as businesses realise that technology compliments talent and waves of innovation make way for fresh opportunities, the global workplace will thrive.”