Under pressure

The ACN Employment & Training Survey shows that employees are committed to working longer hours, even though companies are not giving them any extra pay or training.

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By  Neil Denslow Published  February 25, 2003

Introduction|~||~||~|IT workers in the Middle East are working longer hours under increasing pressure. The 2003 ACN Employment & Training Survey also shows that companies are offering overworked staff little in return for their extra hours. Wages show little sign of improving, and workers still not being offered enough training. As such, many workers are already considering their next career move, even though the region’s shortage of IT staff remains as grave as ever.

Run on www.itp.net, the ACN survey garnered 209 responses from around the region. The overwhelming impression from the survey was that while more workers were planning to stay in the region than ever before, this was more out of necessity than choice. Many were unhappy with pay levels, the majority were being asked to work extra hours, and a large number did not receive any training at all last year.

As such, while the local demand for the skills is increasing, there is a danger that many IT technicians will look to leave the region when the global situation picks up. The regional governments’ drive to boost the IT skill levels among nationals will mitigate this problem to some extent. However, given the Middle East’s reliance on foreign workers, a major reassessment of the way companies treat their IT staff is needed if they are to change the region’s notoriously high staff turnover rates.

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The demands on IT staff in the Middle East shows no signs of abating, with 51% of participants in the ACN survey saying that they were working more hours this year than last year. “This is a big trend [worldwide],” says Maria Schafer, program director, human capital management, Meta Group.

“You’ve got a lot of CIOs who are having to make do with the same number of people or fewer than they had last year, and that’s really causing some problems,” she adds..
Overworking staff can impact the effectiveness of the IT department in a variety of ways. Morale can plummet, staff can become worn out, and the quality of their work can deteriorate. “If you put a lot of pressure on your people, they will not be able to deliver a quality job because you’re not giving them enough time. However, people want to keep their jobs, so they will try as much as possible to cope with what they are given,” says Mohammed Hassoun, regional manager, MENA, HumanSoft.

Despite the increasing workload on staff, there is little sign that IT workers are getting extra compensation. It is always difficult to generalise about pay in the Middle East because salaries across the region still vary in many skills areas. However, there is clear evidence that the increasing supply of skills in the region — from both nationals entering the workforce and cheaper skills from the subcontinent — is pressing wages down.
“There has been a marked decrease in salaries with more people looking to work in the region,” says Ewan Walton, sales manager, ITP Consulting. “While pay for some senior roles in technology companies has held up and even increased slightly, 90% of jobs have seen a decrease,” he adds.

The ACN survey demonstrates the pressure on wages, with 60% of participants saying they were less than satisfied with their salary. Walton believes that IT workers are right to feel aggrieved. “[Salaries in the region] are lower than other parts of the world. On the whole, that’s because the subcontinent supplies people capable of doing the technical work who are prepared to take a lower salary,” he explains.

Because of this dissatisfaction, a large proportion of the region’s workforce is looking to move jobs. 25% of survey participants said they expected to change jobs within a year.
Such a high figure also display a fair degree of confidence in the local job market, which is not misplaced. For although the skills available in the region are increasing, there is still a demand for IT workers. “There is still a [skills] shortage,” says Nadeem Younis, country general manager, New Horizons. “People forget that the demand is going up at the same time [as the supply,]” he adds.

However, while there are opportunities at the entry level, there is much greater demand in the region for those with high level skills. In part, this is because of a lack of supply of these skills within the region, however local companies are also following global trends by focusing their hiring on people with more experience and skills. “Opportunities are growing, but at the same time companies are getting very choosey. They’re really looking for people who have work experience and know the business aspects,” says Rajender Bali, COO, ExecuTrain Middle East.

To try and attract these skills, most local companies are still offering employees permanent positions instead of fixed term contracts. Only 24% of the survey’s participants said there were hired on a fired term contract, whether this was for a fixed time or for the duration of a project. Nearly 50% of people were instead on open contracts. “A lot of people are talking about it [more fixed term contracts], but I don’t see much action actually happening,” says Walton.

While companies may eventually be tempted to go for fixed term contracts as they offer greater flexibility in terms of staffing levels, Walton warns that the best workers may not be willing to accept a temporary deal. “People want the security of permanent position, and the better qualified people, who are able to pick and chose, will always pick a permanent position — unless a fixed term position offers a lot of money — as they know how much the market can change,” he says.

Despite the region’s growing need for technical staff with high level skills, local companies are still overlooking an obvious source — their existing workforce. Most IT workers would happily undertake training, but companies in the Middle East remain reluctant to invest in staff development.

“In our region, a lot of companies do not realise how essential training is for growth… When they do their business plan, the last thing they look at is training, which is wrong. Very few companies have taken a different perspective to that matter, and they are really the companies that are very successful,” says Hassoun.

Most training companies advise technicians to undertake at least four weeks’ training a year in order to maintain and develop their skills. However, the region is falling well short of this standard — 46% of participants in the survey said they didn’t receive any training at all last year.

IT demands so much training because of the constantly changing nature of the field. However, the need for at least a month’s worth can create serious scheduling problems.
“The problem is always when to train your people,” says Hassoun. “A lot of IT or training managers find… [that] they don’t have time to give to their people for training, and they take it as an excuse to not train at all,” he adds.

This problem is particularly acute in companies with small IT teams, which may have only one qualified network technician, for instance. However, a blended approach to training, using e-learning alongside traditional classroom-based instruction, can reduce the amount of time that staff have to spend in training centres.

“This kind of mixture makes a difference for these smaller companies because they can come to a compromise between the need for training and the need for having staff in the office,” says Melad Ghabrial, president & CEO, Synergy Professional Services.

In terms of the type of training requested, most IT staff want technical training in order to develop their skills — 29% of survey participants received technical training last year, and 56% want to have it this year. However, while technical staff need to stay up to speed with the latest technology, they also need to develop their soft skills as well.

“From an organisational perspective you need to pay attention… [to] giving IT people some business knowledge and training them in some of the key things that make them effective businesspeople. This typically doesn’t happen for technical employees,” says Schafer.

The need for soft skills training extends beyond managers handling budgets and overseeing projects to the entire IT staff. Lower level employers also need to understand how the business works and their role within the organisation. Furthermore, they also need to create a good impression within the company, as they are effectively ‘the public face’ of the IT department.

“For most people [in an organisation], the only individual in the IT department they ever connect with is the guy who sets up their laptop or workstation. If that individual cannot communicate with them then IT will suffer, as this may be the total impression that person has of their IT department,” says Schafer.

Even if this impression is superficial and ignores good work by IT, such as maintaining service levels, it can have a damaging impact on the IT team’s ability to win support for new projects. “If the perception is that IT is terrible, then why are organisations going to ask the CIO to take on more responsibility?” asks Schafer.

Local IT staff recognise the need for soft skills training with almost half looking for business skills training this year. Yet, given regional companies’ unwillingness to invest in training, they may not get it, which may cause them to leave.

“If they’re not in an environment where they can develop then they [technical workers] want to move on. Money alone is not as much of a driver [for moving to a new job] as having an impact on the organisation and adding to their skill sets,” says Schafer.

Despite the efforts of regional governments, the local IT workforce still remains predominately ex-patriot and male. While there are signs that this is beginning to change, the Middle East will seemingly be reliant on male IT workers from overseas for some time to come.

Regional governments, particularly in the Gulf, are looking to boost the skills of nationals through various nationalisation programs. In the UAE, for instance, Tanmia, the National HR Development & Employment Authority, is working with New Horizons to train a host of nationals in employment skills, including both end user and high end IT skills.

Such programmes mean that GCC nationals are becoming a larger part of the IT workforce and are more actively seeking IT training. “In the countries outside of the Gulf, nationals have always been involved in IT, but in the Gulf it always used to be ex-pats doing the work. Now, however, I can see a lot of UAE nationals, for example, pursuing IT certification and doing jobs with their own hands,” says Ghabrial.

While the number of nationals working in IT is on the rise, the number of women in the sector remains little changed. Women made up just 11% of the participants in the ACN survey, which clearly reflects the limited number of women in the region who work in IT. “Not many women are looking for technical courses,” says Bali.

However, the Middle East is no exception from global trends in this regard, as women are still only a small part of the IT workforce worldwide. In America, for instance, the percentage of women in IT is also only around 10%. “Women are beginning to have more of an impact [in IT], but we are still in the early stages,” says Schafer.

Women have been put off a career in IT for various reasons, ranging from its masculine image to the amount of time it requires. “So much time is required to learn the technology, then implement it, and then keep learning it, I feel that [women] are not really willing to commit to that amount of time,” says Bali.

However, while still low, the penetration of women in some countries is higher than other. In the Levant region, for instance, “a lot of women do computer science at university… and a lot of them end up working in IT,” says Hassoun.

Women also tend to be found in the less ‘hands on’ area of IT. “You find them [women] more in programming, coding and system analysis, while you will find very few in networking, technical support and maintenance,” says Hassoun. ||**||

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