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Small populations in GCC states can often cause skills shortages, but the situation for IT professionals in Kuwait is acute. Eliot Beer looks at the underlying causes, and asks whether there is a long-term solution in sight.

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By  Eliot Beer Published  July 2, 2006

|~|Dollman,-Sean-----AMERICAN-.gif|~|Sean Dollman, dean of admissions and registration at the American University of Kuwait|~|For a small country, Kuwait has a bigger reputation than one might expect. Holding around 10% of the world's oil reserves helps, as does its recent history with its neighbour to the north. But while Kuwait may punch above its weight, the reality is it has a population of only 2.4 million people and a relatively small economy outside of the petrochemical sphere.

While its relatively vast oil production boosts the Emirate's economy where it would otherwise suffer, one area where it cannot escape reality is specialist training, including IT training. As with other Gulf states, Kuwait has embarked on an accelerated programme of moving its nationals into skilled IT jobs and increasing the educational opportunities available for young Kuwaitis. It is an attempt to reduce the country's dependency on skilled expatriate workers, from the US, Europe and the Subcontinent. But at the moment, there are still important gaps in Kuwait's skill set, especially in the private sector.

"I think there are still a lot of Europeans and Asians filling IT jobs in the country, but it varies between the public and private sectors," says Sushma Kajaria, security business unit manager at Online Distribution, who travels to Kuwait on a regular basis for channel training events. "Across the private organisations, there are some Kuwaiti IT managers, especially at a more senior, decision-making level, but there are a lot of expatriate workers. In the government sector, though, it is almost all Kuwaitis."

She suggests this is because the Kuwaiti government works hard at getting skilled Kuwaiti nationals into government positions; as with countries such as the UAE, government jobs often come with a number of incentives in the form of better hours and a more favourable salary. But Sushma thinks this is now starting to change, as IT training becomes more widespread.

"Dealing with a lot of our channel partners, they are all Kuwaiti companies, and they are able to ask really sharp questions - they know the technology," she says. "For example, if we give seminars or training days on basic topics, like routers or anti-virus, it is hard to get people to attend.

“Looking at newer technologies, or ones which are more complex or only just emerging here, we get a much bigger response."

There is certainly a hunger for IT training, especially among students in Kuwait. Sean Dollman, dean of admissions and registration at the American University of Kuwait (AUK), says around 20% of the institution's students are either majoring in, or have an interest in, either of AUK's two IT degrees. (Under the American model, first year students do not have a fixed subject, so can only express an 'interest' in a subject.)

"Our IT degrees are very tough degrees - they are also our longest degrees in terms of the number of courses students must take to graduate," says Dollman. "We also require students to take part in internships at local enterprises; when students come back off these, we find they have a greater focus on exactly what they want to get out of their degrees. Enterprises are also very keen to recruit IT students from the university; we have had companies talking seriously to students several years before their graduations." Private enterprises are clearly keen to snap up promising Kuwaiti IT students in the face of fierce competition for graduates from the government. Kuwaiti policy is moving quickly towards the idea of the knowledge-based economy, as demonstrated by the recent remarks of the country's Communications Minister, Ibrahim Al-Shatti, at a 'Knowledge Economy Awareness Seminar'.

"The knowledge-made revolution is similar to the industrial one which changed all walks of life and reshaped the political map, where knowledge has become an important source of wealth," Al-Shatt explains.

Information has become "quite an expensive commodity" that bodies from armies to nations, to private enterprises and organisations are working to obtain, he comments.

This focus on knowledge, as a long-term substitute for finite oil reserves, is starting to have an effect, at least on the demand for skilled professionals in the IT field.

Ghassan Farra, CIO at PWC Logistics in Kuwait, says that within his department it is hard to hold onto the Kuwaiti IT staff, for a variety of reasons.

"Both recruiting and retaining skilled Kuwaiti nationals is a challenge, if we're looking to fill highly technical roles or senior positions - most of the time we have to go outside Kuwait to recruit staff," says Farra. "You would have a few in my team who are Kuwaitis, and some of them are quite good, but they don't last; either they move up the ranks very fast, or they move to other companies."

Farra says PWC Logistics does get involved with intern schemes similar to those offered at AUK, but he says the most popular courses relate to business development roles, and the IT department struggles to find suitable students.

Farra does point out, however, that the government does provide incentives for Kuwaitis to join the private sector, but he says even this is not enough.

"Even with government incentives, the pool of talent, from an IT perspective, is very small; we put a lot of ads, but seldom do you find a Kuwaiti applying for a job," he says. "Is it the training that they require? Even if they apply, we can provide the training, but we don't get nationals applying for the jobs. I have no records of how many applicants it (KU) gets for its computer science courses, but I would think it is not very many.

"We find a lot of people coming up from institutions such as New Horizons, but this is not the level that we're looking for - we need university graduates with computer science, which will bring much greater maturity to a candidate.

||**|||~|Sushma-Kajaria-Online-Distr.gif|~|Sushma Kajaria, security business unit manager at Online Distribution.|~|These other guys are high-school graduates with just one year of basic training in computers, and that's not the level that we're looking for," adds Farra

Speaking to Dr Maytham Safar from the computer engineering department at the government-run Kuwait University (KU), it is clear that students' uptake of computer science and computer engineering courses at the institution are not on the scale one would find at a computing department in Europe or the US, with only a few dozen students on the computer engineering course.

Established attitudes around the course also do not match those elsewhere in the world, but it is apparent that KU is working to change both the size and the content of its computing courses.

"For our part, we had a problem in our department; when our graduates went out for work in the IT sector, as a computer engineering graduate you would not expect them to have that much practical experience in how systems would work," says Safar.

"They have a theoretical background, but they don't get their hands dirty with the technical issues - this is not our job here at the department. But we got feedback from the industry that the students should have some skills, they should at least know how to deal with a database practically.

"When they go out to a job with a company which has an Oracle database, let's say, the company wants our graduate to be able to just deal with it, use it. So we had this problem, and to be honest I can see that they lacked the skills to deal with practical aspects of IT.

“So what we're trying to do now is to involve the students in the practical side; we try to give them a lab so they can practise - they can install a database from scratch, for example," he says.

As KU works to make its courses more relevant, the Kuwaiti government is also extending its scholarship schemes to allow more nationals to attend IT-oriented courses at the country's private universities, something which was not possible in the past.

"The government does not provide us with any direct incentive to take Kuwaiti nationals; we are a private institution, so we receive no public funding at all," says AUK's Dollman. "However, the Kuwait government provides academic scholarships to qualified Kuwait nationals to receive education in specific fields of training, including computer science. So students can qualify to attend Kuwait University - the national university - for free. They may also qualify for funding to study abroad, and most recently they can qualify to study in private institutions here in Kuwait, such as AUK. Students will start this Fall at AUK under this scheme."

But Dollman also says he does not believe the IT skills shortage is by any means unique to Kuwait. He gives the example of AUK's experience dealing with the installation of a new IT system: "We are currently implementing the SunGard family of products, including Banner - we are the first university in Kuwait to do this, and we are finding it very hard to get trained technical experts for this product; we're having to do a lot of hiring and training ourselves. But our Kuwaiti IT staff are as adept as anybody else when it comes to learning about this product - the SunGard system is new to the whole region, so it is the same situation everywhere."

So while Kuwait suffers acutely with its small population, it may be that IT managers everywhere are feeling the strain of the pace of technological development. As PWC's Farra says: "The IT skills shortage is worldwide, it's not just in Kuwait."

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