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Saudi Arabia is investing billions in tech. But is the workforce future-ready?

The country is fast-tracking tech workforce, but experts say more needs to be done.

Saudi Arabia is investing billions in tech. But is the workforce future-ready?
[Source photo: Venkat Reddy/Fast Company Middle East]

In 2018, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman courted  Silicon Valley to fast-forward the country, pushing technology as a key driver of the transformation. He met with Jeff Bezos, Satya Nadella, and Google co-founder Sergey Brin. He also visited Harvard and MIT, discussed space travel with Richard Branson, and toured the Facebook headquarters with Mark Zuckerberg.

In the past few years, the country has put together a slew of deals to boost the country’s high-tech ambitions and is touted to spend $24.7 billion on technology by 2025, reportedly the highest government spending on technology in the world. And $6.4 billion in future technologies.

There is a comfort to be had—establishing a thriving tech ecosystem is coming to fruition; however, a different set of challenges exist. 

In the country—two-thirds of whom are younger than 35—demand for trained IT workers has already outstripped supply, and this gap will only grow wider as more organizations realize their need for technical talent. 

By 2025, experts project that thousands of tech jobs will go unfilled. This, however, is just scratching the surface.

The kingdom is the largest technology market in the region, with a volume exceeding $40 billion, and experts say skilling the youth to power tech-related industries is an urgent priority.

DEMAND FOR DIGITAL JOBS

“From big data specialists to AI and digital transformation specialists, digital jobs will be one of the highest in demand in Saudi Arabia by 2025. This will necessitate major efforts to reskill the present workforce,” says Hattan Saaty, founder of management consultancy Strategic Gears and a former advisor to the Saudi Ministry of Labor and Social Development.

One of Vision 2030 AI-related KPIs is for 40% of the workforce to be trained in basic data and AI skills. And according to Saaty, while the kingdom is getting global recognition for AI—ranked first in the Arab world and 22nd globally in the Global Artificial Intelligence Indes, “it lags in talent.” 

“In Saudi Arabia, we are witnessing a rapidly changing economy and workplace, and there is an urgent need to address global challenges in food and water innovation. These factors mean that addressing these challenges and opportunities will require new solutions that can only come from an educated, innovative workforce,” says Dr. Kevin Cullen, Vice President for Innovation, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST).

To develop the technology sector in the country, KAUST is attracting deep tech companies through its innovation fund program, investing up to $2 million in early-stage businesses. KAUST Innovation has created new tech programs and training that are changing mindsets and advancing the Saudi Arabian workforce, says Cullen. 

“In 2021, we trained over 15,000 entrepreneurs in the kingdom, and our first-ever MOOC ‘Entrepreneurship Adventurers’ has attracted over 100,000 online learners since it launched in 2019. We have 1000 Saudi-based SMEs in our SME-support system. We also host hackathons and STEAM challenges, bringing industry and students together to brainstorm innovative solutions to solve pressing industry challenges.”

In 2021, the government announced a series of programs worth $1.2 billion to improve the digital skills of 100,000 Saudi youth by 2030, focusing on cybersecurity, programming, AI, and gaming. It also earmarked $1.4 billion to promote entrepreneurship and support digital content, including an initiative known as The Garage to host startups using emerging technologies. 

“The government is working on initiatives to provide digital skills to youth for future careers in AI and other technologies. Saudi Data and Artificial Intelligence Authority’s Future Skills Program is an important initiative to develop an AI-ready workforce,” says Saaty.

According to him, AI and machine learning, software and applications, and process automation are the technologies young people should be trained and skilled in to be future-ready.

“In the Saudi economy, three key sectors make up over 50% of Saudi GDP: oil & gas, financial services, and government services. These sectors and their workforce can benefit from AI and other emerging technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

According to a Mckinsey report, the country should focus on developing skills that complement the rise of AI and automation.

WOMEN ARE TAKING ON NEW ROLES

Since tech continues to stumble when it comes to diversity, the first Apple Developer Academy in the Middle East in Riyadh, which opened earlier this year, offers female tech enthusiasts an opportunity to become programmers and developers. The academy teaches the fundamentals of coding, design, marketing, project management, and entrepreneurship.

“Our goal is to become the region’s premier center for female iOS developers while supporting them in becoming active and effective entrepreneurs leading the digital transformation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” said Ohood Al-Nayel, Apple Developer Academy director. The academy’s long-term goal is to build a strong foundation for careers in the app economy.

Separately, women are beginning to take on new roles in the workforce—compared with 15% in 2018, 25% of Saudi women now work.

“Saudis have the drive to develop the future workforce and to deliver extraordinary results,” says Khalid Alkhudair, CEO of SMC, a Riyadh-based media company, and founder of Glowork, a startup that’s been at the forefront of boosting women’s participation in the Saudi workforce. 

DEVELOP SKILL-BASED PROGRAMS

Alkhudair says the best way to create more opportunities is to develop skills-based programs to fill technology sector vacancies. And what could make things better would be certificate programs that directly connect to employers. 

“Employers are looking for skills related to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Joining structured training programs to expand their horizons and acquiring specialized certification can help them to become future-ready,” adds Alkhudair.

According to experts, once the training needs are met, the next step is creating new opportunities for potential workers by holding events like tech meetups, hackathons, coding bootcamps, and startup weekends. These events help create a richer, deeper, broader talent pool from which employers can draw.

Meanwhile, the kingdom is partnering with tech behemoth Google to build a large technology hub—Google for Startups was launched to implement business accelerators, and Cisco Networking Academy has trained 300,000 youths in digital and cybersecurity skills.

“Saudi Arabia is a dynamic media, technology, and creativity market. There is a thriving creative scene in Saudi, with a highly engaged and talented pool of young individuals looking to boost the country’s innovation sector,” says Abdulla Alhammadi, Regional Business lead at Snap Inc.

The Snap Creator Studio to be launched in Riyadh later this year, Alhammadi says, will support this thriving local creator ecosystem, offering them to “experiment with state-of-the-art tools while pushing the boundaries of AR.” The studio will engage creators to showcase user-generated content and AR experiences built with Snap platforms and hardware and draw on its global network of creatives and technical experts to train talent.

According to experts, educational pedigree often doesn’t make a huge difference for IT roles. For instance, many gaming enthusiasts have built their systems. With this technical grounding, they would likely have the aptitude to be server or network technicians. These roles require specific technical knowledge, not necessarily an academic curriculum vitae.

There’s a need for tailored training programs that enable a broad range of people to acquire the skills they need. Organizations will not be held back by hiring challenges with actions like developing and scaling innovative training efforts.

“Developing tech skills is essential. The top global businesses are all tech related, and we must be prepared with the skills necessary to fill these roles. Skill, knowledge, and readiness to adapt to changes will lead the youth forward,” Alkhudair says. 

Breaking away from the typical Silicon Valley stereotype career path, these initiatives could open doors to workers when the country can’t afford to let any barriers waste potential.

According to a MISK Global Forum report, by 2035, future employment models will be increasingly fluid, featuring a greater prevalence of part-time, remote, and project-based work. “Over the last few years, we have witnessed workers and businesses embrace and adapt their work models to support a dynamic workforce that places flexibility, innovation, and upskilling at its forefront,” says Alhammadi.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to ever-changing workplaces; organizations must rethink how people collaborate and enhance productivity. 

The kingdom is at a critical juncture in its transformative journey, and digital literacy will be enormously important. In line with the crown prince’s plan, the government has rolled out tech initiatives and workforce development programs, which have largely succeeded. But to become future‑ready, tech companies need to play a leadership role, fund more focused tech initiatives and develop a longevity strategy for retraining and upskilling the workforce.

“There is no doubt that Saudi Arabia is making transformative strides in the workforce. But this is also an opportune time to explore how tech companies can empower businesses to apply socio-cultural models that will be fundamental in attracting emerging generations and fulfilling their aspirations,” adds Alhammadi.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Suparna Dutt D’Cunha is the Editor at Fast Company Middle East. She is interested in ideas and culture and cover stories ranging from films and food to startups and technology. She was a Forbes Asia contributor and previously worked at Gulf News and Times Of India. More

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