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Leading telecom operators and recruitment specialists tell CommsMEA about the challenges they face recruiting people with the right skills, and how they go about hiring the best talent.

Tags: CommunicationsEgyptEskadenia SoftwareJordanNokia Siemens NetworksRecruitmentRoshanUnited Arab Emirates
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Position vacant Al Hassawi says prior to the recession, recruitment was tough.
By  George Bevir Published  September 1, 2009 Communications Middle East & Africa Logo

With the demand for qualified and experienced telecom professionals outstripping supply, it can be difficult for operators to find the best candidates to join their company. But for operators in the more volatile countries of the region, getting the right person for the job can be an even tougher task. Karim Khoja, the CEO of Afghanistan’s Roshan, explains how the worsening security situation has made the job of finding the right person even harder.

“Six months ago, there was a bomb blast,” Khoja says. “We made an offer to an Indian guy who accepted the head of fraud position. The bomb went off, and the next day he called and said, ‘I’m not coming’.”

Operators and vendors in the more sedate countries of the region may not have bomb attacks to contend with, but they still find it difficult to fill senior and middle management vacancies. Recruitment professionals with operators, vendors and executive search firms in the Middle East and Africa say that there are some key areas that they continually struggle to recruit for, including roles that demand specialist technical expertise, marketing, finance, radio planning, project management and sales.

Fahad Al Hassawi executive vice president, Human Resources with the UAE operator Du, says that prior to the financial crisis the operator was barely able to cope with the need for new employees. “There was a lot of demand on good telecom experts in the market, especially specialised ones like marketing and technology and it was very difficult to find the right calibre with the right quantities that we used to look for,” he says.

The economic climate has caused growth operators such as Du to put a freeze on recruitment, an action which has improved the candidate shortage situation by easing the demand placed on such scarce resources.

Richard Guest, principal at executive search firm Ingram and Partners, says that as a result of redundancies and layoffs, the pool of available expatriate candidates in the region is growing, with many keen to remain in the region.

“At a regional and international level there are a lot more people who are available..but getting top calibre people into the region is still quite challenging,” he says.


Finding top talent can be made more problematic by localisation targets set by governments that demand that a certain proportion of employees are nationals from the country the firm is based in. While it may be possible to lure expatriate workers from further afield with increased salaries, bonuses or packages, it is not as easy when it comes to locals.

Bahadur says that in the UAE, finding a local with telecom experience is “harder than searching for a needle in a haystack”. “They are very, very difficult to find,” he says. “Oman tends to be different to the UAE; in Oman they tend to have locals spread across all different industry sectors. But in the UAE, locals tend to go into HR, administration or recruitment.”

Mouien Al Madhoun, head of HR for Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN) in the Middle East and Africa, agrees that the GCC is a difficult place to find suitably qualified local talent. He attributes the dearth of prospective employees for the telecom sector to the competition posed by  other industries. “The banks have 60-70% localisation, and the government employs almost 100%, so I would say the GCC is very difficult to find and attract locals.”

It is the lack of practical experience that is the main problem for employers. Telcos have attempted to rectify the problem with initiatives designed to bridge the gap between university and the workplace, but despite their best efforts the problem seems to persist.

Nael Salah,managing director of Eskadenia, a Jordan-based software provider for operators, and one of the first graduates of Etisalat’s graduate training programme, says the solution is to provide positions for graduates where they will be able to gain practical experience.

 Eskadenia is one of four IT-related companies in Jordan that are taking advantage of the three month old government scheme that pays 50% of the graduates’ salaries. So far Eskadenia has recruited 10 graduates through the initiative, with plans to hire a total of 30.

“If other companies do the same, then I am sure that within a very short period of time we will have enough competent and experienced individuals in the market place,” Salah says.

When it began operations, the quality of candidates produced by the universities and colleges in Afghanistan was a major concern for Roshan, which prides itself on hiring locally.

“When my chief technology officer was hiring the first engineers for the network he was pulling his hair out,” Khoja says. “He told me, ‘If these people can switch on a computer and speak English then we’re going to call them engineers’. That was the first 15 we hired.”

In order to get the new recruits up to standard they were sent to Alcatel-Lucent’s university in Nantes, and to Siemens’ training facilities in Germany and Austria.

About 20% of Du’s 2000-strong workforce are UAE nationals, but the operator wants to increase this to between 30% and 35% within the next three years.

“Even though we slowed down on recruitment, the only thing that kept on going was the graduate trainee recruitment,” Du’s Fahad says. “We did not slow down on this. We have a target for 100 trainees for 2009 to fill and we are moving ahead with this very strongly.”

Such programmes are key for Guest, who warns against placing people in senior positions on the basis of their nationality. “It’s something that should be driven by graduate trainee programmes,” he says. “If you shoe horn someone in on the basis of nationality it’s unlikely from a professional perspective to be best for the company, unless relationships form a key part of the job,” he says, warning that it can be difficult to entice top calibre international candidates into organisations if they are not meritocracies.

Feeder countries

Countries within the Middle East and Africa that may not have been targeted in the past by recruitment teams are producing “rare gems”, according to senior recruitment consultant Bahadur.

“In Egypt, it’s a region where they are very hard working and they like to educate themselves,” he says. “You can find some real gems there. If we are not successful there, we will look to other countries in North Africa. On a par with these areas is Pakistan, along with Bangladesh.”

NSN has ties with universities in Pakistan and a “pipeline” from a South African university, with 10-15 graduates joining the vendor every year. Lebanon also provided 20 graduates last year, and Al Madhoun says that he expects a further 20 to join NSN this year.

A rise in educational standards is one reason previously underperforming countries are now producing sought after staff, but of equal importance is the growth of telecom and IT-related industries that provide opportunities for young graduates to develop and build upon their training and education.

Philippines, Bangladesh, and Kenya are all singled out by Khoja who says that it is possible to recruit “well qualified” people “without paying an arm and a leg”, a sentiment that is echoed by Bahadur who says that clients in the Middle East can “easily match” what professionals in those countries are earning.

Changing focus

As in other parts of the telecom sector, infrastructure vendors are re-evaluating the products and services they provide. NSN provides an example of the changing roles within telecoms, and the resultant pressure that any new direction places on recruitment teams. Once a “box shifter”, NSN, like rival vendors, is repositioning itself as a “business solutions” provider. Such a shift in priorities demands the redeployment of existing staff, or entirely new personnel. For NSN, it has meant the recruitment of consultants to help advise the company on its new direction.

“Over the last six months we have started bringing in principal consultants, people who used to work for IBM, Accenture, Deloitte, and so on,” says Al Madhoun. “We are saying to operators, ok, now you’ve got the box, what are your options and solutions? What will make you different? And principal consultants are pretty good at solutions, so this is an area where we are embarking on heavy recruitment in almost all of our regions and sub regions.”

Such a change can affect operators too, particularly new entrants making the transition from start-up to established operator. It is a situation that Du has had to contend with, and now that the operator has a 30% share of the market, a different set of skills are required with individuals who can perform the difficult task of pushing the operator’s share beyond 30%.

Du has tried to keep control of the process through the use of contractors, but it is not an easy task and no matter how hard human resources departments try, staff turnover will always be a problem.

Maintaining continuity can be especially difficult in markets with a large proportion of expatriate workers, and that is one of the prime reasons for recruiting locally.

The problem is exacerbated in the more volatile countries in the region. Expatriate staff account for just under 10% of Roshan’s total workforce of some 1000, but with 65 out of 90 expat staff leaving during the last 18 months, turnover is high.

“We have a core team that have been with Roshan for five years,” he says. “We rely on this core bunch of people that keep the company running. We’ve got two dozen out of the expats that have been there for between three and five years.”

 Al Madhoun says that for an organisation to survive it must identify 25% of the workforce who are “top talent”; key players with key skills. “You need to make sure they are being taken care of. The rest of the organisation, definitely, you need to take care of them, but this is market competiveness.

 “Localisation has to do with social responsibility, but it is also the right thing to do in terms of longevity as you have some continuity with people that stick around longer,” he says.

At Roshan, staff churn used to be primarily a result of “poaching” by rivals Etisalat and MTN, but Khoja says that has stabilised recently. “Now we are losing staff because of the security situation, not because they are being poached.”

With country managers in some of the region’s trouble spots, NSN has to contend with a similar problem. Al Madhoun says the drive to live and work in such locations comes “from within” staff. “There are a lot of people who are very entrepreneurial, who want to be exposed to different cultures in the world and who want to take on difficult positions early on in their career, so I think there are those people who come by themselves.”

As an incentive, NSN pays staff up to 100% bonus for working in trouble spots, but for many staff an equally important factor is the level of commitment from the employer, particularly when it comes to security in a dangerous and volatile place.

Roshan collects and drops off all staff with private buses, and staff are regularly updated on security with SMS updates, and some staff are accompanied by guards. During last month’s elections, when the violence in Afghanistan escalated, a four day national holiday was declared, and all expat staff were given leave to return home with just a skeleton staff remaining.

But in spite of incentives and assurances, sometimes an employer cannot do enough to prevent “burnout”.

 Khoja recalls the experience of one particular employee, a friend who he had worked with previously.

 “A month after he joined us, someone said to me, ‘You realise he sleeps with his clothes on every night?’ Then, there was a rocket attack and one landed in our compound. The next day, without telling anybody, he got on a plane and disappeared. We got an email from his wife saying he just couldn’t hack it.”

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