Securing the right recruits

The economic boom has fuelled a demand for IT professionals to help drive businesses forward in the region. However, evidence suggests there aren’t enough skilled workers to fill vacancies

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By  Diana Milne Published  September 10, 2006

|~|78skillsbody.jpg|~|Vendors will have to import skills they do not have access to in the region, leading to projects taking longer and costing more to complete. |~|Skilled IT professionals are in higher demand than ever before across the Middle East where dynamic modern cities are rising from the desert and economies are booming. Across the region, companies are adopting increasingly sophisticated technologies to drive their businesses forward and the need for those with technical knowledge and the ability to implement and manage complex IT projects is growing. But a threat looms on the horizon — that there simply won’t be enough IT professionals to fill the vacancies that are being created. Evidence that this could be this case comes for instance from a recent IDC study commissioned by networking firm Cisco, which predicts dire networking skills shortages by 2009 in most parts of the Middle East. According to the study, in 2009 there could be a networking skills shortage of over 40% in Kuwait and Jordan, a 30 to 40% shortage in Saudi Arabia and a 20 to 30% shortfall in the UAE. Even last year, the study warns, there were skills shortages of 30 to 40% in Kuwait and 20 to 30% in the UAE, Jordan and Saudi Arabia and there is a shortage at present of 9,400 networking professionals in the region overall. In countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia — where the stakes in terms of economic growth and investment are so high — the possibility of a shortage of IT professionals to actually carry out planned projects is alarming. According to Philip Van Heerden, programme manager for MEA services and verticals at IDC and author of the recent report, the skills shortages are already having an impact on some organisations — particularly in the UAE — in terms of their ability to complete projects on time and cost effectively. “Many companies I have spoken to struggle to grow at the rate to which they can grow because they don’t have the access to the skills they need,” he says. “If you look at a typical implementation process, from a vendor’s perspective if they don’t have access to skills they essentially have to import those skills,” he continues. “And if they are going to import it the price of it will increase and there will be a chain ball effect,” he adds. This means, Van Heerden claims, that not only are projects taking longer, they are also costing more to complete. Mohammed Aslam, country general manager for New Horizons, which runs 40 IT training centres across the GCC, says the skills shortages are stopping companies in the Middle East from keeping pace with rapidly changing technologies and methodologies in the IT market. “Definitely the companies are not working at the pace which is required and they are not addressing the market demand and the pace of the market growth when they do not have enough skilled IT professionals in place,” he claims. According to IDC, it is the more advanced networking skills which will be most in demand in the next few years. Van Heerden defines these more advanced networking skills as those relating to security, internet protocol (IP) telephony and wireless technology, and says that overall in 2005 the skills gap for advanced networking skills across the region was 30% — a figure that he predicts will rise to 35% by 2009. James Watfa, division manager of the recruitment firm Hays Personnel UAE and Lejla Vrazalic, associate professor for information systems and chair of the research committee at University of Wollongong in Dubai, back up IDC’s claim that advanced, not basic, IT skills are the ones that are most in demand in the region. Both say that IT professionals with business and communication skills and the ability to manage projects rather than just pure technical know-how are the most sought after. “If we’re talking about very simple technical skills I don’t think that we have a shortage there,” says Vrazalic. “What we don’t have is those technical skills combined with business and communication skills — that’s where the shortage is not just in this region but internationally; a lot of countries are facing the same problems,” she states. “We need to be training our IT graduates in how to actually get across that technical knowledge into a practical domain. And what does it all mean — when you sit there and tell me about networks and stacks and all that sort of thing – what does that actually imply from a practical point of view for the company?,” she adds. These types of professionals, claims Vrazalic, are vital because they understand IT within a business context and are able to apply technology in a way, that will help businesses to grow. Watfa says the need for IT professionals with that level of experience is relatively recent and arises from the increasing sophistication of the technology and projects being undertaken in the region. “I just think there hasn’t ever been the need for them before - the size of the organisations that have predominantly been here have had their back office in a different place and they haven’t needed a strong IT team here,” he says. “Whereas now a lot of companies are setting this up as their base or the companies that were small are expanding and putting in ERP systems and opening up new sites all over the world,” he adds. “So all of a sudden you now need very skilled people, specifically people who can actually do stuff — who can actually roll out and do the full project lifecycle — and they are not here,” Watfa goes on to say. ||**||Better training|~||~||~|One of the skills areas that most industry watchers seem to agree on as being a key requirement is security expertise. IDC’s Van Heerden says that security was rated as the most in-demand advanced networking skill in the Middle East in his survey. “There’s a much bigger demand now for security skills because of some of the threats that have taken place,” he explains. “It would be — many companies need to have systems in place to recover data when it’s lost. Obviously for the banks here in the UAE region there were a couple of security scares and it won’t go away,” he says. “Attacks will just become more sophisticated and more aggressive in the future,” he adds. Aslam agrees, saying that rising threats are forcing organisations to become more aware and tackle the IT security skills shortage. “There are constant threats to the business which people are not certified and not skilled to deal with,” says Aslam. “The threat of companies’ security becomes a reality when somebody comes up and enters your database without you knowing it,” he continues. “So again, it is becoming a threat and the organisations are more and more becoming vulnerable, so there is an awareness of the need for people to develop this skill and keep them updated,” he says. Vrazalic identifies another advanced IT skill that is also in demand and one that could have a significant impact on the Middle East economy if it is in short supply — IT research and development skills. She believes that such skills would be particularly valuable in Dubai and the UAE, which is working hard to establish itself as a knowledge economy. “We have obviously got rese- arch experts at universities but people who are actually working at developing practical outcomes for the economy and the country — no, I don’t think we have that in IT in particular,” she states. “We need R&D labs —groups of people who have those technical skills but also the ability to take that one step further to develop new things, new ideas, new products and so on,” she claims. “I think they are making progress towards that through centres like universities but we need to see a bit more investment in those types of areas,” she argues. Organisations across the Middle East are working to address the skills shortages by providing better training for aspiring IT professionals. Van Heerden cites Tanmia in the UAE, The Jordan Education Initiative and the General Organisation of Technical Education and Vocation Training in Saudi Arabia as bodies focusing on education schemes that will address the skills shortages. The UN also hopes to make a difference through its ICT DAR — Information and Communication Technology for Development in the Arab Region — programme. But however hard organisations work to improve training for IT professionals in the region, the conditions must be right for IT professionals to want to work there. Watfa believes that if organisations in the region want to attract high end senior IT professionals then they need to review the packages they are offering them. Professionals of that calibre are in high demand across the world and often have the luxury of being able to pick and choose where they work. Not enough is being done, claims Watfa, to lure them to this region, in terms of salaries and relocation packages, particularly by local organisations who are not accustomed to catering for such high-end IT professionals. “If you’re pulling in people from abroad then you have to make it into some kind of expatriate package which will cost a lot more than what you were paying for local people that were here already,” says Watfa. “I’m finding international companies that have got a really good idea about what the costs out here, they seem to be paying well above what other companies are paying,” he claims. “And your historical local companies that have been here for quite a long time, they’re the ones that are coming up with packages that people just aren’t accepting,” he states. There is evidence however that employers in the Middle East are wising up to the need to increase salaries in order to attract high end IT professionals. A recent study by the Madar Research group, which focused solely on the UAE, reveals that growth in the country’s IT services market had driven up the salaries of employees in certain sectors of the industry by as much as 35% in the last two years. Data compiled by the Dubai based analyst firm in its first assessment of the UAE’s knowledge economy shows almost all IT professionals saw an increase in their monthly salary between 2003 to 2005 with the most significant growth seen in programming, software engineering and network design positions. Salaries in the industry, which rose on average by 7% between 2003 and 2005, are expected to continue to rise by an average of 8% over the next few years, although certain professions related to the IT industry could see their salaries increase by over 20%. Both Watfa and Vrazalic are optimistic that skilled IT professionals are starting to see the Middle East in another light — as an attractive and dynamic environment to work with better career prospects than many other parts of the world. They say that one of the advantages of working in less mature markets like the Middle East is that you can in effect be a big fish in a small pond rather than vice versa — a situation that brings significant career benefits as Watfa explains. “In a Middle East organisation you are the key person in the IT department because you’ve got the right skills out of only a few people,” he says. “So you’ve got that bonus that people are going to use your expertise whereas in the UK or another large country, you are one of many therefore if you are a project manager that’s what you will be for quite a long time —here you could be IT director in just two years.” Vrazalic agrees, and says that if she was put in an IT professional’s place, who had to choose between a job in the US or Dubai, she knows which one she’d choose. “I would definitely choose Dubai because this is where you have the most opportunities to get involved in some really exciting things,” she says. ||**||

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