On the job

Despite global caution, the Middle East is hiring away. Windows Middle East takes a look at the local recruitment scene and finds out what it takes to get a job.

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By  Vijaya Cherian Published  February 2, 2003

I|~||~||~|The Middle East has been fairly insulated from the big chill. It has, no doubt, felt the tremors of the global downturn but it is not holding on to its purse strings as tightly as the rest of the world. In fact, several Arab governments are playing catch up with the West by pumping capital into national IT investments and transitioning to a paperless economy. Likewise, the corporate sector is also driving much of its energies towards automating its systems. This flurry of activity has, in turn, attracted swarms of IT talent from different parts of the world, particularly Asia and Europe, to the region.

Most of these skills are being drawn to specific countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, where a surge in IT initiatives from both the government and private sectors has generated a demanding environment for IT skills.
“The biggest advantage of this region is that it is close to some of the hotbeds of IT resources,” says Jyoti Lalchandani, regional director of IDC Middle East & North Africa. He cites examples of the Indian subcontinent, Egypt and Jordan as having huge pools of talent. “Egypt and Jordan have an additional advantage, because culturally, they understand this region better, plus they have Arabic language skills,” he says.

However, despite having access to such resources and an oversupply of so-called IT
professionals in the market, the region finds itself hard pushed for good, specialised skills. People working in the industry point fingers at various factors for this shortage. “In Saudi Arabia, for instance, there is a lot of demand for people,” says Hawada Zakout, IT recruitment consultant for Dubai-based recruitment agency Clarendon Parker. “However, most skilled young people and those with families do not want to move there because of the restrictions,” she says. Mohammed Shah, IT director of Xeca, the IT services arm of Xenel, one of Saudi Arabia’s foremost business groups, feels that HR consultants play a crucial role in determining the quality of expertise by virtue of the professionals they choose for jobs. He also points out that “in an IT scenario, 80% of the requirements are always for 20% of the skills.” This pattern usually indicates an oversupply of certain categories of IT professionals in the market and a dearth of the rest, and the dynamics of this demand and supply situation constantly fluctuate depending on the dictates of market trends.

||**||II|~||~||~| “Currently, there is plenty of demand for Arabic-speaking sales executives and account managers,” says Clarendon Parker’s Zakout. “We need people who understand the market and who can also identify potential markets.” Addie van Rooij, human resources and environment manager of HP Middle East explains why. “The current market trend here is very sales and service-oriented, where you sell a product or solution to the customer and then offer him after-sales service and support.” People who can, therefore, identify key markets and devise strategies to drive a product into specific segments are in high demand. Likewise, the service sector is a potent area in IT today, where more people can be seen entering into areas such as hardware and software implementation, maintenance, consulting and training.

Although Arab-speaking professionals are not easily available in the region presently, it won’t be long before they will be. After all, hundreds of national graduates are emerging every year from local universities with skills in various fields of IT. As Vineet Chhatwal, senior manager, Global risk management services , Dubai, says: “Governments in the region are doing much to develop local skill. They have a lot of muscle to attempt upgradation, and they are investing a lot of money into training.” This will, in turn, create a great demand for IT training professionals across the Middle East, he says.

However, there are some positions that lay vacant for months in companies. According to Chhatwal, a CIO (chief information officer) is one of them. “This is a person who has a business management background and yet understands technology and its workings. He doesn’t need to be a technology specialist. That can always be outsourced,” he says. Lalchandani of IDC agrees. “Most techies here are at a disadvantage because they do not understand the business aspect. If you need to do a SAP or Oracle implementation, for instance, you need to understand the business needs of a customer before you can decide on what solutions to deploy. Therefore, what you require is a good mix of technical and business skills. If you have that, it’s an easy walk here.”

Another common observation is the severe shortfall of expertise in newer technologies, such as CRM [customer relationship management], ERP [enterprise resource planning] solutions, internet security, telecommunications and multiple protocol wide area networking expertise.

Zakout lists a few others as well from her own experience. “It’s quite difficult to find sales engineers, plant engineers, and project managers, especially Arabic-speaking professionals,” she says.
All this makes the next few years extremely decisive for the region. With an anticipatory growth rate of 10% or more in IT investments in the next couple of years, according to Shah, the demand for good IT skills will be even more pronounced. The estimated growth rate of IT professionals in the region over the next 24 months in the region is between 15 and 20%, comments Fazal Khan, HR manager of Microsoft Middle East.

||**||III|~||~||~|“This makes the role of the matchmaker [IT recruiter] even more crucial in finding the right candidate,” says Shah. “There are risks of bringing the wrong people in for the wrong jobs. With many of them having CNEs [certified Novell Engineer], MCSEs [Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer] and other certifications, it’s difficult to find the right match. This is because job seekers are keeping their avenues open in order to get jobs. So it is difficult for employers to actually find their core competencies and ensure the right match.” Mismatches will, eventually, lead to low performance ratings at the workplace, reflect badly on a recruiter’s choice and waste a company’s resources on the wrong skill.

IT recruitment companies currently work at a disadvantage. They are still in their infancy here. In most cases, recruitment agencies simply have a small IT wing and use conventional methods of filtering such as academic performances and references to screen candidates for IT jobs. “This will not work,” says Shah. “A long accreditation or academic background in IT may not be as good for a job as someone who has had experience working on something hot and new like say, CRM. After all, IT is a bit like carpentry. You perfect your skill with practice,” he explains.

Shah recommends that IT recruitment companies and HR consultants take a few pointers from their counterparts in more established markets to facilitate better choices for the industry. “Recruitment agencies here give us registration numbers,” he says. “Lots of people are registered. This is what they go by. Rather, how fast was the match made and how sustainable is the relationship [between the candidate they chose and the employer]? This is a true reflection of the effectiveness of the IT recruiter,” explains Shah, adding that the recruitment industry itself could do with more IT people. This, according to him, will “add the right level of value and get the fast-response matchmaker”.

However, understanding that recruitment agencies and SMBs do not have that level of funding to afford such resources, Shah recommends co-sourcing and co-funding specialists. “This is the real opportunity where recruitment agencies can broker shared resourcing,” he says. “Four or five organisations can co-fund a specialist with a recruitment agency. This way, they can retain him and it can be a revenue stream for the recruitment company,” he adds.

Although industry experts such as Lalchandani welcome this idea, he believes that the resposibility of hiring should be shared between the HR consultant and the company. “This is a multi-faceted area. Recruitment agencies are only a window to access a group of people. After they have done the initial screening, it is the responsibility of the company to check out the skill sets, team work capabilities and find a person, who will fit exactly into their organisation.”

||**||IV|~||~||~|‘Team work’, ‘fitting into an organisation’ and presentation skills have become operative phrases in the field of recruitment today. Fazal Khan, HR manager of Microsoft Middle East explains that behavioural skills are a very important criteria in recruitment today. “Each job requires certain soft skills. For instance, in the business and marketing side, we look for people who have an ability to communicate well — whether written, verbal or tacit, people who are hungry to take up a challenge and have the ability to get things done. For the job of a consultant, we would look for someone who has good listening skills, an open mind and a customer-centric mindset. At the same time, we specifically look out for people who think the Microsoft way and can work well in a team. Team work is crucial.”

Shah agrees. “Increasingly, you have to put people into different teams to deliver. That is how projects run now. And today’s environment specifically demands plug-and-play IT resources. There is no time for induction. People want ready resources...you put him into a team, and he must be able to perform immediately.” Zakout stresses that presentation skills could often determine her choice of candidate for a job. “Companies today specifically ask for people with good presentation skills,” she says. “Earlier, you’d get people who could perform but were very bland. They didn’t dress well. They didn’t have personality. Still, they used to get hired. But now, times are changing, especially in Dubai. Companies are heading towards a more professional attitude and they have a better range of candidates to select from. So they go for people with an overall positive attitude.”

The men and women who hire have had their say. Clearly, jobs in IT will become more demanding and expect people to bring forth all the talents and skills that they have to do their job successfully. But on the other side are employees themselves in the IT industry, who rely on several factors for job satisfaction.

On the one hand, they may have had the right skills to carry out a project when they were hired but may need to upgrade them in order to keep pace with the developments in their field of specialisation. Providing the necessary training and publicly acknowledging work will, in turn, ensure that the demanding environment in the IT industry willl not frazzle or frustrate but encourage employees to perform better.

||**||V|~||~||~|
Syed Z Hassan, recruitment manager, HR, Emirates Group, talks about recruitment techniques at Mercator.

On software development in Emirates:
Almost 70% of the software used in Emirates is developed in-house. The rest is outsourced. Most of the software systems that we have developed are on a par with world class systems. In fact, many of our systems are used by other companies. One example is RAPID, our revenue accounting system. This is being used by carriers like Olympic Airways. We have even developed a performance management training software in-house to help employees keep track of their development in the company.

On hiring people for new projects
There are many ways to go about new projects. In some cases, there are some contractual jobs like in software development. Then, we outsource this function in that we subcontract the talent from a contractor in the market. These are usually short-term projects. However, many times, we have retained these employees to upgrade and maintain our systems. We have a clause in the contract with the contractor stating that we reserve the right to absorb a person into Emirates as a permanent employee after one year.
Let’s take another scenario. Cargo, for instance, can draw up a list of things that they want on their system to serve the customer better. Once they have drawn up their requirements, we put together a project team to develop this system. For this, we could either hire new people or upskill our own employees.

Procedures for hiring
On one level, the IT specialist in my team screens the resumes against a broad criteria. She then adds comments in electronic format to the resumes she chooses and sends them off to the line manager in Mercator. The line manager can shoot off specific questions to the candidate and depending on the responses that come in, we decide whether we want to carry on with a telephone interview. Sometimes, we even go there and interview people.

Upgrading skills and training
We have a distinct training and development setup. There is training for technical as well as software skills. For Mercator, we have an IT training manager. Whether a secretary wants to upgrade her Excel skills or a project manager wants to upgrade her skills, they will put the request to her. She’ll see if that training is available in house. If it isn’t, she’ll outsource it. Additionally, when the IT department plans a project, it knows what skills its employees have and don’t have. If the project requires upskilling, the line manager puts in a request. Again, if the skills are not available in-house, the IT training manager will outsource the training. We also have an e-learning unit which converts existing training programmes to electronic format and also develops new programmes for Emirates employees.

For those who want to work with Emirates
You can either log onto www.emiratesgroupcareers.com and apply online, or come down to the Emirates Career Centre in Deira, and apply online at one of the four workstations we have here. Each of the terminals includes a scanner for people who want to scan and attach photographs.||**||

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