Paper chase

Would be employees are spending enormous amounts of time and money earning the certifications that will help them join the Middle East’s IT workforce. However, many local companies are beginning questioning the value of paying for such qualifications.

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By  Neil Denslow Published  November 25, 2002

I|~||~||~|Across the industry, vendors are promoting certification as the best way of ensuring that staff have the necessary skills to support their companies’ systems. Many businesses seemingly believe this, with an increasing number directly tying salary bonuses to certificates. Other companies, however, question whether paying the thousands of dollars needed to put staff through training and exams gets them anything more than just a piece of paper.

IT certificates generally fall into two categories: vendor-neutral and vendor-specific. The difference is that vendor-neutral certificates, endorsed by organisations such as CompTIA, aim to certify a general low level understanding of a topic. By contrast, vendor-specific qualifications, such as the Microsoft Certified Engineer (MSCE), prove an expertise on a particular vendor's products.

The growing emphasis placed on certification can be seen by the number of companies that are now paying bonuses for certificates, as opposed to just skills. According to Foote Partners, bonuses tied to certification have fallen by an average of just 2.7% over the last year as the economy has slowed. By comparison, however, skills pay across the industry has fallen between 14% and 15% over the same timeframe.

“For a long time skills pay was much higher than certification pay. If you go back two years, the gap between what people were being paid for skills versus what people were being paid for certification was 3% of base skills. This is now other way round,” notes David Foote, president & chief research officer, Foote Partners. “That’s a pretty significant trend,” he adds.

Systems integrators, Seven Seas Computers provides a good example of how certification can be used as a factor in calculating staff pay. While seniority and experience, for instance, also affect the final sum, industry-recognised qualifications can significantly boost an engineer’s pay packet. “We have six or seven engineers who get certification allowances of 4000-5000 Dirhams per month,” says Vaneeta Chhugani, assistant manager, people, Seven Seas Computers.

The importance of certification is also seen in recruitment, where a formal qualification is now a prerequisite for most IT jobs. “Certification is a must, while experience depends on the position we are recruiting for.” say Vishika Gupta, HR assistant, Philip Morris International.

The main advantage of hiring certified staff is that the recruiter can be confident that the candidate does have the skills they are claiming. This means that the candidate will be able to start working on their first day and that the company won’t need to spend time and money on training them.

However, the region’s move towards nationalisation is changing this. “There are some employees who are sent to us to be built up from scratch. This is by and large happening with the locals,” notes Nadeem Younis, country general manager, New Horizons.

For nationals there is some government funding available for training for entry level IT positions, but this does not extend to the wider population. Job seekers are therefore left to pay for training themselves as few organisations train staff up to entry level positions.

“If it’s an entry level [course], usually it’s financed by the individual not by the company,” notes Jamil Ezzo, deputy managing director, CompuBase.

While many training companies offer flexible payment schemes, for instance, the burden is still on the probably unemployed or low paid student to finance their own training for an entry level position.

||**||II|~||~||~|One way of limiting this cost is through e-learning, either by buying a CD or accessing content via an online portal. E-learning is particularly cost effective in this area, as a well designed course will replicate an Oracle database or Cisco router, for instance, thereby removing the need to buy one. For this reason, it is proving popular within corporations, as well as for individuals looking to find entry level IT positions.

“With the high rate of people getting into the IT field, e-learning among people looking to develop skills for entry level jobs is expected to pick up tremendously in the next couple of years,” says HumanSoft’s CEO, Fahad Al-Othman.

Once a candidate is taken on, the responsibility for paying for training is often passed onto the employer who needs to develop staff. However, some companies doubt the value of paying for expensive training at external institutes and instead expect staff to develop the necessary skills on the job.

Such an approach means that a company avoids paying for training, which can be an extra burden on the IT budget. This extra cost can be significant as well because, as a rule of thumb, the amount spent on training to support a new network, for instance, should be equivalent to 10% of the hardware investment. “You have a hardware purchase of US$100,000, about US$10,000 goes into training. This is the ballpark figure,” explains Josef Miskulnig, managing director, Fast Lane.

Not spending on training may save money in the short term, but it could prove to be a false economy as an IT investment can be fatally undermined by insufficient support. This will then result in money being wasted and, potentially, the company seriously misjudging the success of its implementation project.

“We have had experiences where people have bought security solutions for over a million dollars, which they have implemented themselves. They felt secure, but really they were insecure because they didn’t know how to implement it properly,” says Rajender Bali, COO, ExecuTrain Middle East.

“The IT manager may not want a certification because they have crossed that age and don’t want to study a full course… [However,] the systems are now so complex that you can’t just say ‘I knew how to do this four years back, so I know how to do it now’,” he adds.

Deciding what training is needed to support a new system is straightforward, as most companies know what their existing skill sets are and what the new platform is. Therefore, it is simply a matter of identifying where the skills gaps are. “By and large, organisations know what their [training] requirements are,” says Younis.

“The reason is they already have a platform that they have been using, for example, Oracle, Microsoft or Sun. They would acquire exactly what they want, so it is [clearly] defined,” he explains.

||**||III|~||~||~|Most companies do undertake some form of training to support a new system, whether this be through working with an implementation partner or through external courses with a training institute. If a large number of staff require training, then the institute usually develops an entire curriculum for just that company. However, if there is a smaller number, then these students can be slotted into public classes.

Many companies, such as the OTE Group in Oman, also cut the cost of training by employing the “train the trainer” concept. “One guy attends a training course, then he comes back and trains the other people,” explains Dileep Somani, group IT manager, OTE Group.

While this methodology may be cheaper than paying for external training for the entire IT staff, it fails to recognise the fact that teaching requires more than just IT skills, but also training skills as well.

“Bringing on someone from the IT department who has no background in teaching or training [to train staff]... may mean they train colleagues in a non-systematic way,” warns Ezzo.

The need for training of some sort is apparent to most companies, but whether or not this should lead to a certificate — given the extra expense and time involved — is a more vexed question.

For a reseller, the need to get staff officially certified is clear cut, as they need to be able to show potential customers that they have the skills required to implement a new system, for instance, as well as meeting requirements from the vendors.

However, some non-IT companies believe that certification, as opposed to just training, is a needless expense. At the OTE Group, for instance, IT staff are receiving training to support an SAP implementation from both the implementation partners and local training institutes. If any of the IT staff want to do the certification exams though, they have to do them in their own time and pay for themselves.

“We are more interested in how much knowledge [the employee] is gaining, rather than them getting a certification,” says Somani. “Certification is always more important to the individual, to get a better job or something of that sort,” he adds.

||**||IV|~||~||~|At Qatar Steel Company (QASCO) however, certification is used as a way of ensuring that staff have benefited from the training and learnt all they were meant to.
“We have made the decision that whenever staff go through a training course they need to get certified,” explains Malek Hamdieh, QASCO’s IT director.

“One thing is making sure that our people take the training seriously and gain from it as much as we want… Also helping them gain a certification [is a boost] for their self-esteem,” he explains.

Philip Morris takes a similar line. “We are putting in a lot of money and we want a certain standard in the training,” says Gupta.

Given the importance it places on certification, Philip Morris pays for IT staff training and certification for skills that are considered to be essential for the job. Furthermore, if IT staff decide to undertake training on non-core skills on their own, the company usually contributes towards the cost of the training and certification.

Seven Seas also helps its staff by paying for training and contributing towards exam fees, especially when it needs specific skills that are in short supply. For instance, the company recently had a large project requiring a number of BT certified engineers, which it didn’t then have. “[Therefore,] the company sponsored engineers for that particular qualification,” says Chhugani.

Aside from ensuring that the company has the skills needed to support a new system properly, certification of new skills is also important to the employee as it can enhance their future job prospects. The IT staff at Philip Morris, for instance, “are pretty touchy about it,” says Gupta. “They wouldn’t like training that wasn’t certified as they want it on their CVs.” she adds.

With an increasing number of companies paying for certificates and training, those that don’t may have to consider doing so. Failure to do so may otherwise result in staff leaving for other organisations.

“Many companies are using certification as a staff retention tool,” observes Foote.
However, even though certificates are important in hiring for technical positions, IT professionals would be wrong to assume that qualifications alone will be enough to get them all the way up the career ladder.

Instead, further up in the hierarchy, less emphasis is placed on certification, with experience — particularly of project management — becoming increasingly important.

“At the mid to senior level, companies are not asking for IT certification. It’s degrees and experience — not only of the technology but also of the Middle East,” says Ewan Walton, sales manager ITP Recruitment.

“IT certificates are not near the top of priority list. Often they are not on the priority list at all,” he adds.

Gaining these project management skills and experience depends, however, on working up through a company. As such, while certificates may not be an important consideration when companies look to fill more senior post, it is clearly important for gaining the managerial skills they are interested in.

Furthermore, while skills alone may be sufficient for promotion within the same organisation, the opportunity to move to a higher position in another company may be lost, unless the candidate has a certificate proving they have the skills they claim.||**||

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