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Shifting Trends in the Kurdistan Job Market

Posted on 18/01/2016


By Allegra E. Klein, Chief Operating Officer of MSELECT

The Kurdistan region has experienced a series of economic blows in the past 18 months, the effects of which have been profoundly felt in the job market, particularly in the private sector.  With the advent of the Islamic State (ISIS), drastically reduced oil prices, and a freeze on funds from the central government of Iraq, the region is struggling to maintain financial stability.

This triple threat has led to two key developments directly affecting the workforce in the region:  (1) a scaling down of the Oil & Gas industry’s activities and (2) an influx of refugees from Syria and internally displaced persons (IDPs) from other parts of Iraq who are fleeing ISIS. 

The first development has resulted in the downsizing and, in some cases, loss of jobs in the O&G sector, whereas the second has occasioned an increase in employment opportunities within international non-government organizations (INGOs) and aid agencies such as the United Nations, who are working to assist the newly displaced populations in the region.

So what does this mean for the local workforce?  Just last year, it was a job-seekers market, with not enough qualified candidates to fill the vast number of vacancies available.  Now, however, we have shifted to an employers market, with a sharp increase in workers laid off from their jobs in the O&G sector, joined by a glut of fresh graduates from petroleum and engineering programs. 

Furthermore, these newly unemployed are oftentimes applying for INGO vacancies that don’t match their qualifications – square pegs trying to fit into round holes.  Add to that the influx of jobless refugees and IDPs all competing for a dwindling number of available jobs, and you have a radical shift in the employment scene in Kurdistan.

As a result, we are finding that a whole new and different set of skills and expertise are needed in order to fill the available vacancies.  For example, qualified social workers are now in great demand, while engineers and drilling experts much less so.  People with previous NGO experience are now more highly valued than those with a corporate background.

However, it is still possible for job-seekers to make the transition, especially if they have experience with skills such as accounting, administration/logistics and human resources (HR), which are also needed for INGOs.  And if they have previously worked with international companies, that’s an added bonus since most development work entails interaction in a multicultural setting.

Another effect of the changed job market has been on the training and capacity building sector.  As workforce development needs have changed, we have seen a rise in demand from job-seekers for basic business skill sets such as HR, Project Management, and Finance.   

Additionally, we are seeing a new need for vocational training for INGO beneficiaries.  Among the most requested “hot” topics are Administrative Skills, Customer Service, Retail Sales, Hospitality, and Basic Security Guard, in addition to the more traditional English Language and Computer Software skills.  And INGOs are also looking for professional training for their internal staff in subjects like Communication Skills, Supervisory Skills and Team-Building.

At MSELECT, we have seen a dramatic increase in requests from all kinds of international organizations in the region, both for recruitment and training services.  Earlier this year, we conducted a 6-month capacity building project for USAID which involved opening 6 centers throughout Iraq (3 in Kurdistan) to train job-seekers – including large numbers of IDPs – in employment and vocational skills.  More than 11,000 trainees participated in this project. Since then, several other major INGOs have sought our assistance with similar activities.

So what does the future hold for the job market in Kurdistan?  As long as conflict persists in the region, international aid organizations will maintain a presence and continue to have a profound effect on the local workforce.  Sectors supporting these institutions, such as hospitality, retail, and real estate, will also be active, as will companies that provide training and capacity building services. 

Meanwhile, other sectors are on the rise, including new entrants in technology such as IT and networking companies, and construction is making a comeback as more and more international agencies establish a presence in the region.  

Until the O&G sector returns to full capacity, government funds are replenished, and ISIS is pushed out, the key to surviving in this new economic environment – for both employers and job-seekers – will be the ability to adapt.

[Originally published in "The Kurdistan Review" in January 2016; reprint by permission only]