Wanted: Qualified network professionals

With regional infrastructure expansion fuelling IT investments, enterprises are discovering that as the technology continues to evolve, human resources are struggling to keep apace. Consequently, Middle East businesses are facing a deficit of qualified network professionals

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By  Zoe Moleshead Published  May 5, 2002

Skills deficit|~||~||~|The Middle East’s continued IT investment in public and private sectors is placing a huge strain on human resources. The skills crisis is compounded by the rapidly evolving world of IT, which means that the already limited skills base is constantly playing catch up.

The networking market in particular is feeling these pressures as it accounts for approximately 40% of the IT skills shortage.

According to Bob Lewis, senior manager, learning & development, Cisco Systems, Europe, Middle East & Africa, although the Middle East skills deficit is not as large in real terms as other parts of the world, the “pain” factor in the region is much higher.

“The pain indicator is the [skills] shortage as a percentage of demand,” explains Lewis. “As a percentage of demand the figures are fairly high, it ranges from 31-35%, and that translates to one in three jobs potentially being unfilled because there are not sufficient people in the marketplace to do the jobs.”

Although the region’s training companies are reporting increased business, they also claim that the skills shortage is getting worse.

“The skills shortage is still huge and the numbers are still growing. The figures are being sustained in spite of the efforts of the training companies in the Middle East,” says Melad Ghabrial, president & CEO, Synergy Professional Services.

Infrastructure and IT growth in the Middle East is the main problem as the local market’s rapid growth exacerbates the lack of regional skills.

“The problem is the market here is still growing very fast. It’s still a Greenfield market where people building are a lot of infrastructure. When it comes to small companies, medium companies, large companies or corporates, everybody is in the phase of deploying infrastructure, and that’s why the skills are required,” explains Ghabrial.

According to Josef Miskulnig, managing director of training house, Fast Lane, this problem is also being undermined by a deficiency of highly experienced networking professionals. Although individuals are seeking training, the skills they acquire are often limited and basic.

“We see a lot of what we call ‘paper certifications’ where people simply pass by learning the answers for the test. There are a lot of paper certified engineers out there, whose real deficiency is on the practical side,” comments Miskulnig.

However, attitudes towards training are definitely changing and IT education is scaling government agendas around the region. As governments undertake programmes to improve the local skills market, enterprises and vendors are also recognising the crucial importance of skilled employees to the success of IT projects.

“Before, enterprises used to hire in the skills, now they are actually trying to develop their own people. The enterprises have woken up to that and, of course, the vendors have as well. From their perspective it is very important to educate their customers, and the customer is now asking for that education as well,” says Mark Heard, training consultant, The Network Center.

||**||Local talent|~||~||~|The training drive among the region’s governments and enterprises is not just aimed at pushing skills into the market. It is also focused on creating locally installed skills and driving fresh network employees into the market from the graduate population.

These initiatives are also designed to reduce the dependency on the large, transient expatriate population that has characterised the Middle East employment market for many years.

“The logic, if you are looking to impact the supply, is that it is no good fishing in the same pool of people that already exists. What you are trying to do is increase the flow of people into the workplace with the requisite skills,” explains Cisco’s Lewis.

As part of Cisco’s attempts to bring additional talent into the market, it has established The Networking Academy. In the Middle East, this programme has seen Cisco team up with the region’s universities and colleges — including the Higher Colleges of Technology in the UAE — to provide curriculum, equipment and training to these institutions.

The increasing focus on local skills is also being noticed by the training companies, which report changing demographics when it comes to course participants. Synergy’s Ghabrial reports that they “are seeing interest from local people which have just graduated and want to compliment their degree by getting specialised certifications before they start job hunting.”

The Network Center is also receiving increasing amounts of nationals from local government bodies and enterprises.

“We are noticing now that the large majority of our students are nationals coming from governmental offices, such as Etisalat and Dubai Municipality. We are getting between 6-12 students at a time,” says Heard.

“For our Extreme Network courses it is more than 60-70% nationals,” he adds.

The emphasis on training can clearly be seen throughout the region with governments around the Middle East teaming up with training houses to educate the future workforce. The Network Center’s general manager, Lisa Rutherford, says Saudi Arabia and the UAE are two of their most proactive markets in terms of training.

“Saudi is very conscious of the skills shortage and keen to upgrade the skills they already have in the market,” she says.

Synergy has been working with the Egyptian government for the last two years, “training 260 fresh graduates every year,” and it is also working on a big deal in Jordan to train further graduates says Ghabrial.

The establishment of Dubai’s Knowledge Village has added weight to the education initiatives in the UAE. Although still in its developmental stages, Synergy has already announced its commitment to the project and other training companies, including Fast Lane have plans to take up residence in the training hub.

The aim of the Knowledge Village is to create a regional training hub, which will not only draw in local training houses, but also provide them with the necessary infrastructure to offer any type of training, whether it is remote learning, e-learning or instructor-led classes.

||**||End user|~||~||~|Vendors are also recognising the benefits of establishing education programmes and putting training partners in place. Properly educating end users improves the success of networking installations and also helps reduce the support dependency of the end user.

“The vendors need to train people otherwise the support calls they receive are going to be about basic things, such as ‘how do I switch the box on, how do I do this or how do I do that.’ If people have been trained their calls are obviously going to be a lot more focused on specific technical problems, as opposed to basic problems,” comments Heard.

“The vendors are pushing for certification. This is very important because their products are getting more and more complex and users are becoming more demanding. It is to the benefit of the vendors to provide that knowledge and have people that are qualified in the market,” adds Yasser Helmy, regional manager, Fast Lane.

Frequent technology developments are also compounding the skills shortage. Cisco training companies explain that four or five years ago there were just two Cisco courses, which covered every aspect of networking, — now the number totals over 70.

Although Miskulnig believes that most enterprises have the basic networking skills in place, education and training is still lacking when it comes to specialised areas of networking, such as “IP telephony, network security, network management, and wireless technologies,” he explains.

“Quality of service, multicasting, voice & data integration, security, all these areas are definitely going to be highly in demand and this is where we are going to have a very low number of skilled people,” says Synergy’s Ghabrial.

Network skills also need to be continually updated and refreshed. Ghabrial suggests that if certified professionals do not keep up to date with the changes in networking technology “within 3-6 months their certification can be out of date,” he says.

“In the old days you typically hired somebody for two-three years and you could utilise their skills set for that period. Today if you hire somebody, within a short period of time they needs to update their skills,” adds Miskulnig.

Although regional efforts look set to pay dividends to the employment market, the need for education is far from over. And for the Middle East to have the human resources in place to fuel its continued growth and development it must continue to push IT education and training.
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