Steven Mifsud MBE interviewed at MENA Construction Summit

Answering questions on-stage, Steven spoke at the MENA Construction Summit this week on multiple topics effecting the future of the construction industry, ranging from Saudisation, to diversifying the workforce, to improving the local school curriculum.

Accessibility and inclusion play key roles in how attraction providers can contribute to the sustainable development goals set out by Saudi Vision 2030, so Steven was happy to share his expertise from Direct Access’ experience providing consultancy for multiple giga-projects within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, including SEVEN and Qiddiya City.

The interview:

The construction industry has traditionally lagged in diversifying the workforce and localisation in general. How is this changing and what are the main challenges to be overcome? 

“Nurturing diversity within the construction industry is certainly a challenge, and we have witnessed that because even defining what inclusion and diversity are within the industry can be hard.  

In Saudi Arabia specifically, Direct Access has been working as access consultants to a lot of influential companies to try and change this; helping their architects understand the importance of accessibility from both a legal and ethical standpoint – because you can have accessibility without inclusion, but you can’t have inclusion without accessibility.  

As for what we’re doing to overcome it….one of our first big contracts in the Middle East was the construction and day-to-day management of Expo 2020 Dubai. Back when we started working with their Architects in 2018, accessibility was a relatively new practice and there were gaps in local knowledge, culturally. We approached this and worked around it by creating a benchmark report that measured all of the global accessibility guidance and streamlining it. This not only helped the designers create an accessible site, but pushed the boundaries of inclusion in the region.  

So to answer the question, we think the international expertise of companies like ours, in collaboration with local teams, will be key to diversifying the workforce, because culturally the idea and potential of diversification have rarely been explored up until now. But through collaboration with international businesses such as ours, it is changing for the better”. 

How can Saudi Arabia provide the necessary skills to Saudis and encourage them to enter the construction industry? 

“It seems obvious to say – but I think providing good education opportunities is key to both the skills and encouragement part of that question. Good education is what allows people to learn not only how to do the work, but also understand the value of what is being produced. On a much smaller level at Direct Access, we’ve been successful because our team truly believes in what we’re doing, that we are adding something of value to the world for disabled people, fighting for the resources that society has long denied them. There are other factors too, like paying a competitive wage is always a good incentive, right? But it starts, I think, through education and giving the individual a reason to choose construction over computer science, or engineering, or some other career.” 

What incentives can the government provide to the private sector to increase Saudisation? 

“Truthfully, I don’t think I’m educated enough on politics within the Kingdom to feel like I can give an acceptable answer, but as a business owner – I can tell you that ensuring that local talent is better than international options will help Saudisation. I read an article somewhere a few months ago that said unemployment among Saudi women has fallen to 15.7%, down from 19.3% in 2022 – which is fantastic and a good sign of things to come for Saudi. In my opinion, though, ensuring that local citizens continue to be competitive with expats will help, and making that happen means – again, providing good education opportunities, apprenticeships, etc.” 

Can the focus of schools and university curriculums be improved to provide the right academic, technical, and vocational skillsets for skilled labor and engineering? 

“Again, I’m not familiar with the local school-to-university curriculums to answer this fully – but I think looking at what other nations are doing and what is working for them is probably a good place to start. My home country, the UK, has seen a year-on-year increase of people working in the engineering sector for years now – so if schools and universities in the Kingdom believe that they can do better for their labor force, there’s a good chance it probably can and should be improved.” 

What role can international companies play or are playing in knowledge transfer and training for Saudi nationals? 

“Well, as a representative of an international business, sitting in front of you all right now… I do believe knowledge transfer plays a role in the development of training Saudi nationals.  

Again, going back to our work for Expo City during Expo 2020 and COP28 – the cultural gaps and perceptions of disability were challenges that we overcame by providing accessibility workshops and inclusivity training ourselves in tangent with Expo City’s team. Doing that meant that local and international staff understood how to properly interact with disabled people when they visited pavilions on site, understood why providing accessible signage across the site was important, and so much else that might never have been considered without our team being there. Right now, we’re working closely with SEVEN on their accessible theme parks, and we’ve also been working in Diriyah Gate on the accessibility of commercial office spaces. 

In the United Arab Emirates, we even designed and implemented the first ever Changing Places facility in the whole of the Middle East at Expo 2020 Dubai – which was incredible. We also introduced the Middle East to the Hidden Disability Sunflower Lanyard, resulting in an endorsement for the Lanyards from the UAE Minister of State for International Co-Operation. Both of those were touchstone moments for us, as far as realizing the extent that having international expertise can make an impact locally because each of those examples resulted in the delivery of accessibility training and the creation of jobs”. 

What is being completed to empower abilities and promote inclusive employment opportunities? 

“As well as looking at accessibility for both physical and digital spaces, Direct Access also makes it our business to improve the social perception of disabled people. And what I mean by that is that we encourage businesses to provide adjustments to the workplace that suit the needs of disabled people, normalizing their unique perspective in the workplace. We also ensure that employers are not biased towards or against disabled people, and offer services such as inclusivity training to staff, which makes disabled people feel safe applying for jobs they may otherwise not consider because their needs might not be met or understood. 

For those who might not be aware, we are a company made up of largely disabled people, and we achieved this not only by hiring selectively, but by encouraging talented disabled people to want to work for us. Talented people with abilities are out there, you just need to make sure they can be seen and heard – which means including people with disabilities in your marketing strategy, providing your job descriptions in alternative formats, and ensuring that the interview process is flexible and suits the needs of the individual. So that’s what we’re doing, and what we’re also encouraging others to do as well”. 

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