x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Iraq seeks new crop of workers

Needed: a hairdresser in Iraq. In a sign that normalcy is returning, and amid some pockets of violence, recruiting agencies for companies in Iraq are starting to fill positions that became vacant during the war.

Hairdressers do not normally operate under the threat of attack.

In the gruelling opening to the film Saving Private Ryan, viewers would not have expected to see them on the beaches of Normandy dragging the clippers across the heads of soldiers, medics and radio operators.

So the fact that recruiting agencies are hunting for one, and for many other professionals on behalf of employers in Iraq, is a sign that normalcy is starting to return to the country despite the violence that still flares.

As US troops withdraw from towns, a growing number of Middle-Eastern, European, and Asian companies with operations there starting to hire again.

Jack Montgomery, a senior consultant at Stanton Chase International, one of the largest global executive search firms, is looking to fill three positions in Iraq for two customers.

"Iraq has oil, water and can feed itself," Mr Montgomery says.

"Once the situation calms down, it will really take off. You would be surprised how many firms are looking. Many companies realise it is better to get in now if they do not want to miss the boat."

For almost two decades, most global companies shunned Iraq after the UN imposed a near-total financial and trade embargo after the country's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

But today a trading relationship is being re-established. One of Mr Montgomery's clients is a multinational consumer goods company that wants to sell products including washing powder, Coca-Cola and shampoo to Iraqis.

The company needs a country manager to run its multimillion-dollar operation in northern Iraq's Kurdistan, considered safer than the rest of the country.

"As things are changing and hopefully calming down in Iraq, we are seeing activity there," Mr Montgomery says.

He is also looking for after-sales and marketing managers for an Iraqi conglomerate that has just won the rights to distribute cars for a global car maker.

Mr Montgomery says he has been contacted by several Iraqi professionals keen to return to Iraq after living abroad for many years.

"This country was starved of modern products and infrastructure for the past 20 years," he says. "Now there will be so much commercial and civil work, construction, airlines, you name it."

Billions of dollars have been allocated to reconstruction projects throughout Iraq.

Salaries are comparatively high and job-search websites such as Jobs4You say contracting jobs pay between US$80,000 (Dh293,840) and $175,000 a year, in most cases with housing and meals provided.

Iraq could also prove attractive because of the rise in global unemployment after the economic downturn.

The Middle East serves as an ideal hunting ground for Iraq's employers. Executive search firms say they find a lot of candidates in the Gulf, especially given the need for the Arabic language.

Gulftalent, a large regional online job finder, says there is a large variety of jobs on offer. "Vacancies are spreading wider across more industries than before and now include jobs in retail and telecommunications," a Gulftalent spokesman says.

Rabea Ataya, the chief executive at Bayt.com, another large regional job-finder, says his company is also seeing a pick-up in all sorts of jobs in Iraq.

"These are not only security-type positions any more but companies are now looking for everything from experienced gold sellers to marketing experts," Mr Ataya says.

Demand for civilian contractors has picked up once more as more jobs previously done by the military are handed over to civilians.

There is also huge demand for engineers for oil and gas-related industries, security and construction jobs, but also for the managerial and marketing posts.

"Previously our Iraq vacancies were almost entirely concentrated in the north, or Kurdistan region, but now we are seeing a slightly broader base, including some vacancies in Baghdad for instance," Mr Ataya says. He says while there was an initial surge of activity after the fall of Saddam Hussein's government in May 2003, the environment became so dangerous that most business activity all but closed down. "The security risk was just too big."

Mr Ataya says he finds it difficult to attract non-Iraqis to the country. "There is definitely demand for quality, but security is still an issue and it is not as easy to attract good people as elsewhere," he says.

But simple changes, such as more direct flights to Baghdad, are making things easier.

In many cases, managers in Iraq will live with their families in Cairo or Dubai, for example, and return to work from their family home for one week every three or four weeks. Most companies pay for the airline tickets from an employee's home to Iraq.

At this time, Gulftalent has 13 jobs advertised in Iraq, while Bayt has 21 jobs including, of course, one hairdresser.