Finding talent

The telecoms industry is undergoing a massive shift in technologies, but this is straining many organisations' human resources.

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By  Derek Francis Published  May 18, 2008

At first glance, Etisalat's participation in the recent UAE Careers Exhibition, held in April in Dubai appeared to be just another example of the company's efforts to strengthen its CSR initiatives. But while the company's commitment to tertiary education is admirable, it also serves as an indicator of just how tough recruitment is becoming for telecom operators in the region.

Many industry insiders are well aware that this brain drain is occurring and have expressed concerns on how low salaries in the sector are persuading ICT workers to look elsewhere for long-term careers. They are also aware that as mobile and internet penetration continues its rapid growth, and new services enter the market, so more skilled ICT professionals are needed.

But for Karim Sabbagh, a partner at telecom consultants Booz Allen Hamilton, the problem is being compounded by a shortage of industry leaders, as well as skilled technical staff. Speaking at the last month's SAMENA conference in Dubai, Sabbagh said that the shortage of skilled workers goes right to the top of companies.

"There is a shortage of executives globally, including this region and a shortage of good CEOs, who can lead the organisation and build new companies," he said.

This comes at a time when quality senior executives are needed most. Operators and vendors face changing business models to adapt to new rivals that include the likes of Google, Apple and even Facebook.

"There aren't that many who can lead big organisations today, let alone people who can lead the new era of telecommunications. This is a challenge that the industry is starting to face and will continue to face in the next five to 10 years, to be able to build a new set of talented people to lead this industry to beyond connectivity," Sabbagh added.

In Jordan, arguably the most competitive telco market in the Arab world, the regulator admits it can't compete with private sector salaries and needs to address this problem. Like Etisalat, the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC) in Jordan is showing a commitment to education. Working with a European technical assistance project, it has established a Masters programme for regulatory affairs at the University of Jordan.

"Such a Masters degree would prepare graduates to work for the TRC and to work for other regulators and operators in the Arab world and will help us in having quality people on demand," said Dr Ahmed Hiasat, CEO, TRC.

But despite these efforts, there is still room for further liberalisation in Jordan's telecom sector. Indeed, while Jordan's mobile sector is fiercely competitive, to the benefit of consumers, its fixed-line market remains under the control of incumbent operator Jordan Telecom.

The TRC has mooted local loop unbundling to begin in earnest later this year, but others aren't sure. Marwan Juma, CEO of XPress, the push-to-talk operator in Jordan, says the regulator lacks the resources to offer the sector the strong regulatory guidance it needs.

"If you want to effectively liberalise the telecoms sector, and you want effective competition throughout, the regulator has to be very strong," Juma said. "This means the payscale at the regulatory authority has to change."

And if Jordan's TRC - often considered a shining example of how to regulate the telecoms industry in the region - is said to be having problems, this does not bode well for others and could potentially dash plans by the more under-regulated markets to push their telco sectors towards greater liberalisation.

This is, however, the worst-case scenario. In reality, operators and regulators are all too aware of the issues facing the industry and are working hard to overcome them. For some, like Omantel, the answer lies in seeking strategic partnerships from telco firms with technical expertise. This plugs a few holes in their gaps of knowledge. Elsewhere, tertiary education programs should bear fruit in the coming years, grooming a new generation of skilled and able employees, but these plans are likely to take time to deliver results.

Derek Francis is the assistant editor of Communications Middle East & Africa.

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