Graduating into the workplace

Graduates need IT skills and knowledge of professional applications if they are to leave university equipped to enter the workplace and begin work immediately

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By  Mark Sutton Published  April 2, 2001

I|~||~||~|While IT projects for secondary schools are addressing the skills gap in the long term, the Middle East still needs to address the problem in the short term, particularly making sure that national populations are able to compete in IT. At this level there is a need for much greater involvement from the industry — after all, the need is to create workers who can join the IT skills pool, and the industry has the best idea of what those needs are. There is also a desire for countries to move away from reliance on expatriate workforces and to create their own, homegrown talent and technology industry.

There are a number of initiatives that are looking to deal with these issues, both by training university students, recent graduates and by retraining unemployed nationals. In Egypt, a major program is underway to turn 15,000 graduates into IT professionals over five years. The project, a joint initiative between the Ministry of Information and Communication and IBM, focuses on e-business, and provides professional certification, the Certified Internet Webmaster (CIW), at the end of the six month course. “They [the Ministry] wanted to develop the IT industry in Egypt,” explained Hani Galal, learning services manager for IBM Egypt. “One of the main pillars of this development was developing the people.”

The Egyptian government announced their intentions in October 1999, and IBM became involved soon after. The scheme takes recent graduates and puts them through an intensive six month course, covering NT, Unix, HTML, Java, Websphere, Lotus and other application tools that will give them skills to become software developers. IBM has agreed to train 3,000 graduates per year on the course, starting from January this year, with the costs being split between the company and the government on a one-for-one basis. The course is not offered to computer graduates however. “We on purpose decided not to select people with computer backgrounds, because we want to enrich the industry. If a person with a law background can get into the program, then that is going to benefit the industry as those people will be more capable at developing applications in that area,” said Galal.
The graduates are not under any obligation to the government or IBM at the end of the course. Graduates are free to work abroad, and IBM will be offering the top 10% unpaid residencies with IBM software labs anywhere in the world to provide them with further in-depth experience of software development and create “top notch professionals”, says Galal.

IBM is involved in a number of other initiatives in the region. In Egypt it is involved with the Future Generation Foundation, to improve the skills of IT graduates who are already working. In Bahrain, local partner GBM is working with the Bahrain Society of Engineers (BSE) to help its members improve their IT skills at its new training centre. Also in Bahrain, GBM is working to deliver vocational IT training to Bahraini nationals with the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs.

||**||II|~||~||~|While links between the industry and academic institutions remain strong, there is still some division over exactly how much involvement vendors should have with academic programs. Many universities and colleges are reluctant to have their curricula directed by vendors. “Universities don’t seem to mind if you talk technology in general, but they don’t seem to want to line up to any particular vendor, that’s is where the objections seem to lie,” said Sanjay Soni, education manager for Microsoft GEM. “But 90% of the time, a graduate is going to have to deal with companies using Microsoft. So do you offer them [training] that they can go straight out into the corporate world and start working with, or do you offer an overall opinion of how technology should be, without any actual experience?”

As the industry leader in so many areas, Microsoft is working on a number of different projects, says Soni. It makes sense for university students to get up to speed with their technology as quickly as possible, and ideally to be accredited for the programs.

Not all of the universities agree however. “The problem is that these courses are product specific, and they are changing very fast,” said Dr Nassar Shaikh, Dean of the College of Industrial Management at KFUPM. “If I train someone on networking, and I give him a credit for it in his degree, after a few semesters, that [course] becomes obsolete. So we like to stick to the point that you get credit for the conceptual side of things. If we teach an introduction to networking course, then we teach the basics of networking.”

But regardless of disagreements on course content, Universities are well aware that they need industry’s input. “We have to work closely with the industry — we cannot isolate ourselves,” said Dr Shaikh. There are a number of ways that industry has input into the curriculum, he explains. Guest speakers are regularly invited to the university, and research projects with industry are encouraged.

||**||III|~||~||~|An advisory committee to the College also has input. “We have nine members from industry and three from the senior faculty,” explained Dr Shaikh. “The committee is the link between the curriculum and the industry’s needs. They [the committee members] represent the big companies, like the banking sector, Aramco, SABIC, because these are the people that recruit our students. In any meeting they can give us input, and it can be incorporated into the curriculum very quickly.”

One such requirement was the need for e-commerce training. In response to demand from industry, the university has been offering two e-commerce courses since September 2000. E-commerce and Internet lecturer Mustafa Ahmed, who teaches the courses, provides an example of another way that universities are able to get industry expertise to their students — by recruiting lecturers from industry. Previously working for an e-commerce solutions provider as a professional services manager in the US and Australia, Ahmed wanted to return to his native Saudi, and to have the opportunity to advance his academic qualifications. KFUPM were looking for someone to teach e-commerce. “I wanted to come back to the Middle East, where the whole e-commerce revolution is on the rise, and KFUPM has devoted a lot of attention to this area, so this was a good place to start,” said Ahmed.

Academic appointments could even present a new opportunity for those caught out in the US dot-com collapse, says Ahmed. “There are a lot of people that are looking for work, and this could be a unique experience for someone in Silicon Valley.”

In common with most universities, Dr Shaikh says that the university is always keen to develop research with visiting speakers from industry. Research not only enriches the quality of teaching for the university and helps companies with product development, but can also involve fees, another important area. In the US, funding of universities by the private sector is well established, but that is not the case in the Middle East yet. “We would like the situation to be like it is in the US,” said Dr Shaikh. “We have been spending a lot of money on updating our equipment every two years, and ideally we would like this to happen more. Sometimes we work some deal with industry, to sponsor a new lab, or donate money for laboratories, but the majority of support comes from the government.”

||**||IV|~||~||~|Virtually every profession has been changed by the introduction of PCs to the workplace. Architecture, publishing, and design have been revolutionised by desktop applications. The very first killer application that sold small business users on the idea of the PC was the spreadsheet, and since its introduction, accountants have not looked back. But schools and colleges that teach accountancy, or any professional course, are faced with a difficult question — how do they teach professional applications without bias towards a particular vendor? Students need the skills to operate in their chosen professions, but colleges are reluctant for them to be too reliant on PCs, and don’t want to be seen endorsing one vendor over another.

In some cases, the problem doesn’t exist. In Canada, the dominance of accounting packages from Computer Associates subsidiary ACCPAC means that many of the State Education Departments have standardised on the products. “Any student who learns accounting, if they want to apply what they learn, is going to use accounting software — and you cannot be an accountant in Canada if you don’t know ACCPAC,” said Marc Van der Ven, regional manager for ACCPAC Middle East. “Because we dominate the market in Canada, it is very good for students there to learn ACCPAC, when they graduate they can go straight into an accounting department and start working with the product — it gives a serious advantage.”

But despite the market dominance, the vendor is careful not to dictate how its solutions, which include small-to-medium and corporate accounting packages, are taught. Syllabuses and manuals have been developed by teachers themselves in colleges in North America, and this path has been followed in other countries, with manuals produced for local markets in South Africa, the Philippines and China, among others. At present the company is in discussion with a number of colleges in the UAE to introduce training. A pilot scheme is underway with King Abdul Aziz University in Saudi Arabia, with ACCPAC’s local partner.

ACCPAC is now taught as part of simple accounting courses, as parts of an MBA (in Lahore, Pakistan) and it has been taught as part of a combined course with Microsoft solutions for business studies graduates. Van der Ven says it is even happy to see their software taught alongside other packages. The only proviso is that the teachers themselves understand the product, and that enough time is dedicated to the subject in the curriculum. “We want to see where they are going to integrate [the course], it has to make sense and you have to look at at least 10-15 hours to get hands on experience of what to expect from accounting software. Whether students start work with ACCPAC doesn’t matter, at least they have an understanding of computerised accounting,” he said.

In order to encourage the students to adopt ACCPAC, in common with many other vendors, offers its software at reduced prices to students, and provides fully functioning trial versions for use in colleges. The company also subsidises the cost of manuals and training for teachers.

The problem of providing software to schools has caused some headaches to vendors in the past, particularly in the Middle East. While many vendors have been keen to have their applications in educational institutions, many colleges and universities have been reluctant to invest, relying instead on pirated copies. As authorities in the region have cracked down on pirated software, so colleges found themselves under pressure. In some countries, such as Lebanon, the law has been designed to be more lenient to allow educational institutions to use copied software, and the Business Software Alliance (BSA) has also arranged special pricing schemes with many of its members. This can mean savings of 95% on software from vendors such as Autodesk.

“Microsoft sells its software for approximately 90% less than retail,” said Sanjay Soni, education manager for Microsoft Gulf and Eastern Mediterranean.” I don’t ever recall counting the number of PCs before we signed any agreement, it always has to be based on trust, but institutions are becoming more aware that is isn’t worth the repercussions of not having licensed software.”

In return for such deals, vendors say they receive a number of benefits. For ACCPAC, a supply of students that are familiar with their software entering the workplace has long term and short term benefits. “In the long run, they, might be in a position where they have to choose a product, which is fine, but long term,” said Van der Van. “In the short term, there is an enormous skills shortage in the IT industry, for us it is even harder, because we don’t just need people who understand IT, we need people who understand IT and accounting. Our partners need help installing these products, and if we have a good educational program, we will have people graduating who might be interested in working as consultants [for ACCPAC]. That is the immediate impact.”
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