The Industry Speaks: Lack of skilled workers as an impact of COVID-19


Industry experts from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE speak about the challenges they are facing in terms of skilled workers.


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Facilities Management
July 26, 2021
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The Industry Speaks: Lack of skilled workers as an impact of COVID-19

If there is one aspect of COVID-19 that is seldom talked about, it is the impact that travel restrictions have had on the cleaning industry. With travel restrictions in place, has the pandemic led to a dearth of cleaners in the Middle East?
Let’s hear it from industry experts.

Ahmed Anwer, Executive Housekeeper, Mansard Riyadh, A Radisson Collection Hotel, Saudi Arabia


The impact of the pandemic

Among the numerous difficulties brought upon the hospitality sector during the pandemic has been the challenge of on-boarding skilled team members due to the various and constantly changing travel restrictions form the various countries from which many of these candidates are recruited.


Overcoming the challenges

As with every challenge, however, opportunities are presented. The same pandemic that is closing borders, unfortunately caused many hotels to either close or seriously downsize their teams. This created a unique situation where there are many skilled workers already in the country looking for new opportunities. While transferring employees comes with its own set of unique costs and fees, these are often far less than one would pay for recruiting expenses, on-boarding travel tickets, etc. Put together an enticing advertisement in your company’s social media page or on your personal Linkedin and you’ll be surprised to find out many qualified candidates are already here waiting to get back to work or ready to accept a new challenge.


The future

In Saudi Arabia the worker shortage also presents a great opportunity to expand your company’s Saudization numbers. There is an abundance of very energetic, enthusiastic, young Saudi’s eager to enter the exciting world of hospitality! Make sure you have a development program already prepared for them and let them know the hospitality sector is one where with hard work and a great attitude you can very easily move up the ranks: today’s room attendant is tomorrow’s rooms division manager who will in time become a general manager! That’s one of the great joys of our industry, the diversity of our team and the various paths they took to reach their positions of leadership.


Mohammed Saad Shayyah, General Manager, Touch for Cleaning Hospitality & Trading, Doha, Qatar


The impact of the pandemic

The supply of skilled manpower is a major asset of our company and a great demand is necessary. The biggest challenge we are facing during the pandemic period is the travel restrictions. The restrictions are causing us to struggle in terms of  manpower recruitment, both in local and international borders.  


In general, the government implements rules that we are required to follow, including travel restrictions. Our recruitment process is more challenging than before. It is more costly due to the unstable progression, limited travel flights and the higher cost of airfare and quarantine facility. Furthermore, the joining process, training and upskilling of the new batch would take a long time to cover which causes our company innumerable issues. As a result, we are experiencing massive shortage in the supply of manpower and the market continuously increasing the demand and price rates.


Overcoming the challenges

During this period of manpower shortage, we are forced to extend the working hours of our limited skilled manpower to meet the client's satisfaction. As a consequence, our company provides an extended welfare to our workforce by giving them adequate accommodation facilities, transportation, onsite food provision, full uniform, laundry system and overtime work benefits to satisfy their needs. 


At this moment, the cleaning workforce is considered as one of the frontliners in both public and private sectors. They shoulder the primary responsibility to maintain a safe, clean, and secure working environment. Lack of manpower will severely affect the cleaning schedules to provide regular service to the clients as well as to meet their additional requirements in the locations. As a strategy, our company combines the available workforce and the advanced cleaning, fogging & fumigation machineries that replace current scarcity. In addition, we practice to adapt the innovative methods of cleaning, proper sanitization and pest control to meet the demand of our current and new projects.


The future

The end of the pandemic is unpredictable and the travel restrictions persist, but we must move ahead and continue to seek and learn progressive methods to cope up in this current situation. On the positive side, Qatar and other international borders started to start opening the borders. Our company will take this opportunity and is ready to expect the high cost to start recruiting skilled manpower in both local and international. With proper planning and systematic execution, we will continue to adapt and provide advanced training and machineries to our workforce. As a benefit, this will help to ease their job, provide a smooth service with our clients and extend our additional services in the market. 

Vijayshankar Kavasseri, Operations Director, Musanadah Facilities Management, Saudi Arabia


The impact of the pandemic

As you would be aware, we are dependent upon major South East Asian Labor markets/countries who are the major feeder markets for the manpower that we use in our business. Unfortunately, we have severe travel restrictions which have been in force for over a year now in a majority of these countries like

  1. India
  2. Pakistan
  3. Nepal 

to name a few and this has led to shortages of available resources, lack of professionals and price hikes in some cases. This has led to an impact on the skill levels and orientation. It is not only that there is a shortage in KSA but there is a shortage across the GCC as there are lots of projects coming up in the next few months and years ahead e.g .- EXPO 2020 in UAE, World Cup in Qatar etc.

As service providers the competition is not only between service providers but also countries as there is also the factor of ease of getting visas which is an allied perspective and movement to and fro.

Overcoming the challenges

  • We have started the experiment with using and looking elsewhere in terms of Labor Feeder markets, i.e. new countries which might not have similar restrictions for certain positions
  • Using Manpower agencies (paying higher costs in KSA) who have a bigger talent pool of available talent locally
  • Paying higher costs and absorbing them in the interim
  • Opening dialogues with the clients to move to Quality/Output based service contracts thus improving efficiency and reducing the manpower commitment 
  • There are still many organizations which are still not fully operational due to the current crisis and so we are able to manage with reduced schedules
  • Better training and equipment to increase efficiency.

The future

  • Move to automation/machines to improve the efficiency by getting the buy-in of customers to share the costs of this investment.
  • New labor feeder markets

Haroon Rashid, Soft Services Manager, The Maintainers, Qatar

Impact of the pandemic

The quality recruitment, visa quota approval as well as other government approvals has strung the right mobilization of skilled workers. The travel restrictions have indeed had a major impact in hiring the quality skilled manpower.

The peninsula itself is reeling under the impact of the pandemic. With this, most of the businesses follow the government protocols having a 40 to 50 percent of manpower occupancy in the offices with a safe distance working. The number of hours to clean with a minimum manpower as per the protocols is affecting the overall cleanliness of a given space.

Overcoming the challenges

Though a company has the number of quotas and approvals, the source countries such as India, Pakistan, etc have been marked as red zones during the pandemic. This has made travel unsafe and difficult from these countries.

Having new contracts available inline,we have been pushed to hire locally & hire manpower from the local sources on a temporary basis for higher prices. This ensures we don’t lose business.

The future

The service staff have an advantage in making plus money through over-time hours. This option gives a handy advantage to execute things. Besides, the rotation of staff on a 3 shift basis also enhances the quality of cleaning utilizing the 100 percent contracted manpower. 

Andrea Yoko, Head of Soft Services, Ejadah, UAE

Impact of the pandemic

It has affected the cleaning workforce much like all other trades and professions within the Middle East. For cleaning specifically, it is the recruitment in  the traditional markets such as South East Asia that are currently affected. However this has given an opportunity to provide greater focus  on other markets such as Africa and in-country recruitment.   

The skilled manpower segment has not been affected by these restrictions, it is a reduced variety of nationalities that is the challenge at this time. That said, we are seeing new African markets with staff joining from Ghana, Gambia and Sierra Leone. With local recruitment the only option for many companies, we have witnessed a plethora of almost weekly open days to recruit our trained seasoned award winning staff.  Fortunately many have been able to compare the total offered packages, benefits and hidden costs and seen that the grass is not always greener.

However, cleaning schedules have not been impacted. All site managers responsibly maintain sufficient staffing levels with the use of the relievers to cover vacation leave. Our event team have provided back up short term coverage for unforeseen immediate requirements

Overcoming the challenges

Our main challenges have been our staff waiting and wanting to go on their scheduled leaves. Whilst we can’t manage their personal disappointment we have managed to extend leave entitlements to later in the year, into 2022 and beyond if necessary. We have also accommodated sufficient numbers of local leaves to avoid burnout.  We do anticipate and are prepared for a ‘rush’ of vacation requests once travel restrictions are lifted. In turn it will mean our staff currently out of the country on vacation will return refreshed and invigorated to step in.

The numerous open days have seen a few resignations however HR has revamped our employee value proposition to ensure longevity and reduce attrition.

The inability to source from South East Asia has resulted with HR carefully planning onboarding to meet current needs and execute mobilization of new projects.

A positive from the restrictions has been the opportunity in keeping infections low & allowing sufficient time to vaccinate our 12,000+ workforce.


The future

We do not envisage that the travel restrictions will last beyond 2021 for which we are equipped both in terms of attrition and new projects. If it does we will tweak our 2021 plans into 2022 as well. Resilience and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances are the key skills to navigate this period of time. It may now be a perfect time to review the introduction of automation and robotics which has perhaps been seen previously as a cost prohibitive resource.

Bilal Khan, Executive Housekeeper, Fraser Suite Doha, Qatar

Impact of the pandemic 

During the pandemic, many of us have adopted and learned new unexpected ways of cleaning to maintain our environment by educating ourselves and our existing workforce by using protection equipment, sanitizer, etc both for our safety as well as for the guests. 

Skilled manning is a challenge where a new era of hiring instead of skills is on will. A can-do attitude  will certainly help in this scenario. We have trained and cross trained many of our associates to become skilled employees. 

Overcoming the challenges

Hiring skilled employees is the biggest challenge but I would like to thank the Qatar government, who has handled the COVID-19 situation in an excellent manner. We are looking to hire from available local talent as well as bringing them from outside of the country. 

Overcoming the challenges largely depends on smart planning. Prior to COVID-19, we had already started cross training our workers. During this activity, we had trained employees from different departments with the skills of housekeeping & cleaning. It was this planning that got us through the pandemic. 

Because of this planning, there was no impact or compromise in our cleaning schedules. Early planning also helped us maintain a high standard in hotels during these difficult times. 

The future

I hope and wish that travel restrictions are lifted soon and things return to normal. However, if they persist, we will have to follow our contingency plans which includes further cross training and adapting cleaning schedules. 

Minakshi Pandey, Group Executive Housekeeper, Byblos Hospitality

Impact of the pandemic
COVID-19 outbreak has presented unprecedented circumstances before the fragile tourism and hospitality industry. The highly infectious novel coronavirus continues to thwart the sector and raises serious questions about the present and future survival of the sector.

The dominant sub-themes that emerged from the qualitative enquiry included need of multi-skilling and professional development of the employees, increased sense of hygiene, sanitation and related SOPs, optimism toward revival of the industry, media roles, and need of better crisis preparedness.


Overcoming the challenges
The biggest concern with a skills shortage is the flow-on effect. Unlike a job in an office or on a building site, where it is easier for an underperforming worker to hide, the fast pace and team-orientated nature of hospitality makes it obvious when one staff member is underperforming. This is especially true for service staff and those in housekeeping  who have customers watching their every move.

This is a big reason why hospitality team morale can drop so quickly, because hospitality workers know most customers judge an entire organization on the performance of one or two service staff. When one team member underperforms, other team members become frustrated and less incentivized to perform at their best. This further impacts service, and over time the organization begins to lose its top talent. When this happens the service quality and team culture only deteriorate faster, making it even more difficult to attract and retain the right talent.'

Another potential consequence of the hospitality skills shortage is a widening of the gap between high performing and low performing hotels and restaurants. Those businesses that have the capital and motivation to invest in their staff and pay them more competitive wages are likely to attract higher skilled workers, leaving behind those venues that can’t afford to compete.

The future

Solving this problem at an industry level is very complex, but addressing team cultural issues seems an obvious first step. Businesses need to consider why the industry has such an undesirable reputation among young people. Common reasons include a perceived lack of career opportunities, poor treatment from management, low pay and intergenerational challenges. Prioritizing these areas would help businesses attract and retain skilled staff. While this model has its merits, it places full service  – and the very notion of traditional hospitality – under threat.

Mick Dalton, Managing Director, Facilities Management, Diriyah Gate Development Authority, Saudi Arabia, Member International Facilities Management Association

A big shout out goes out to all in FM and cleaning who are the heroes during the last two years of COVID-19. The cleaning teams have stepped up to the mark, sanitized, cleaned and made the workplace and other places safe.

Six Challenges Cleaning Teams Face
Below are the six challenges cleaning teams face:

     1.Daily in House Cleaning and Labour Shortages

The daily cleaning of offices,malls, buildings, hospitals, airports etc areas can be challenging. The cleaning must be performed daily with covid in mind but at times there are just not enough cleaners available and staff working double shifts.

     2.Outsourced cleaning companies fail to keep your facilities clean

Lack of customer specific detailed cleaning procedures, unsupervised untrained cleaners and nonexistent corrective actions systems allow for outsourced cleaning companies to fail.  Small cleaning issues multiply over time, leaving your facilities dirty. This is compounded by poor / no communication of customers' concerns to the cleaning teams. 

     3.Third shift and weekend coverages

Many companies operate 24/7.  Often there is a challenge in staffing the 11pm to 7 am shifts and weekends, however, this shift is critical to prepare the facilities for use the next day.

     4.Highly technical maintenance labor shortages 

Skilled labor shortages provide a unique challenge to facilities management.  Stripping & waxing, sealing floors, carpet shampooing and grout cleaning cannot be done by just any employee.

      5.Emergency labour requirements 

What happens when inclement weather, sand storms, rain, natural disasters and facilities breakdowns require 25, 50 or 100 workers to be brought in or extra hands are needed at 2:00am?  Facilities managers don't have the staffing resources necessary to resolve the situation.

       6.Lack of training

Many companies are members of BICS and this does not reach down to operatives leaving staff with wrong cleaning materials and lack of knowledge on how to clean properly.

According to Investopedia:

Coupled with a labour shortage in cleaning in the Middle East and it’s impacting more FM and cleaning companies. There are fewer qualified candidates per job. Qualified job candidates are becoming harder and harder to find thanks to the skilled labour shortage.

Reports from across the Middle East from Facilities management companies indicate a lack of qualified applicants to fill open positions. Travel restrictions because of COVID-19 is preventing workers from entering countries.  Some workers went home for an annual holiday and then home the borders closed, not allowing them to return to work.

FM companies winning new work often have to fulfill the labour from within the country and existing contracts. Often shortage of manpower is a common complaint and results in penalties in KPI performance managed contracts.

Between the dropping unemployment rate, more job openings, increased consumer demand, heightened e-commerce expectations, and the COVID-19 pandemic, there aren't just fewer candidates per job.



The Great Recession and Worker Exodus

When the last economic downturn happened in 2008, many skilled laborers - especially in construction - were laid off.

Instead of returning to what they perceived as an unstable industry, many either retired or began working in different industries. In the last two years many expats have left their employment and returned home. 

Since there are fewer workers to do the work, existing employees have had to pick up the slack. That has meant longer hours and less time off. Double shift working is common. No day off on Fridays is common. No annual leave and ticket and no flights due to border closures. Higher costs for the contractor and lower morale amongst cleaning staff.

For some workers, the boost in pay from overtime has been a welcomed bonus.They’ve been able to enjoy a higher standard of living and pay off debts back home. But for others, the result has been burnout, frustration, and defection.

The FM industry has done a marvelous job in coping with these challenges and trying to keep staff motivated.

We hope as Vaccine roll out eases the return to normality and travel these challenges will become easier.