Skills shortage

How the region’s top CIOs ensure that the skills of their employees are up to scratch – and what to do when they are found wanting

Tags: Dubai Aluminium CompanyEMC CorporationQatarQatar UniversityUnited Arab Emirates
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Skills shortage AL MULLA: I definitely think there is a skills shortage today of IT employees – there’s no question about it.
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By  Imthishan Giado Published  September 27, 2009 Arabian Computer News Logo

Thus far, 2009 has proved to be a year of reflection for regional enterprises. Where once companies were driven by a nearly endless supply of projects and budgets that were rubber stamp formalities towards acquiring the hottest technology, today firms see a different landscape.

While there are still projects happening, many CIOs are taking the opportunity of the slower pace of development to re-examine the staff in their departments to find out if they are keeping up with market requirements, need to be retrained, or in the worst cases, need to be laid off. For some, it’s the first real chance they’ve had to do so in years, outside the regular cycle of appraisals.

What many find, however, is that their departments lack the skills they need to move their organisations forward – and as always, fresh talent, both experienced and otherwise is thin on the ground. Ahmed Al Mulla,  vice president of IT at Dubai Aluminium (Dubal), confirms the presence of a regional skills deficit.

“I definitely think there is a skills shortage today – there’s no question about it. A lot of people talk about the financial crisis – yes, there are some vendor-type resources available in the market, but it’s not the type that you are looking for. Even if you get something because of the market situation, it will not last for a long time, because the market’s going to come back,” he warns.

The absence of a skilled professionals, it turns out, is doubly painful for IT managers. On one hand, it’s extremely hard to find someone with the exact right skils, so many are forced to build them in-house. When they do this successfully, most of these individuals then look for high-paying vendor jobs, which are only too happy to headhunt employees from customers. Ghassan Sadallah, head of academic computing at the university of Sharjah, confirms that training employees is constantly an inescapable reality, but there are ways to prevent them becoming “too skilled” – and then likely to look for other employment.

“It is really a very important decision to upgrade their people according to their requirements. I think it will cost less, people will be more confident and it is easy to manipulate their skills according to the requirements. Unfortunately in many cases, these upgraded people will start to look for higher positions according to their skills. The trick is to manipulate their skills in an indirect way to be incomplete. You try to keep them here. You give them knowledge or upgrades to their skills but in a way that fits your own needs only,” he reveals.

But for some vertical industries, there are no options available at all to poach from the market or other vendors. In these cases, CIOs must build teams in-house using existing resources. Muhammad Javeed, director of IT Services at Qatar University, relates his experiences with building such a division.

“Higher education is a little bit different than the corporate or other SME businesses. The skillsets in higher education require a totally different approach, different certifications and so on. We totally build up our own team – I have got a team of more than 70 people across the university. There is a huge lack of expertise but we’ve been trying to build it up. I built up this department from scratch to 75 people over the last four years. I inherited about five to ten people but they were all useless,” he recalls.

The pros and cons of building an IT department internally versus “buying-in” skills externally are obvious. On one hand, you can build a trusted IT team with exactly the skills you need – but it will take several years and there’s no guarantee that these individuals will stay on afterwards. On the other hand, splashing out budget on the best staff on the market ensures that your firm has the latest skills and plenty of experience out of the gate – but risks alienating older staffers and sparking an exodus, while still not guaranteeing that your staff will stay to continue building systems.

So if there really is a skills shortage, the million dollar question then becomes – what skills are really in demand?

Al Mulla has some ideas on the subject: “The most demanded skills are architectural – people who know the ins and outs of IT, technology and applications. The other type is someone who understands the mapping business processes with IT. So really, you’re talking about one kind of application development. The third type is good project management skills.”

“Security is the topmost in demand as of today. Virtualisation is another skillset which is going to pick up. It’s not there at all in this part of the region yet because we are very ignorant due to the money available. People are not thinking of saving electricity – we cool our entire houses with air conditioning even if there is only one person in the room. Another is business process management and intelligence – a lot of people are not paying attention to it but it will be the driving force in this region soon,” Javeed speculates.

Rather than just hiring in more technical staff, it’s becoming clear that enterprises are looking for individuals who can understand the overall role IT plays in fulfilling organisational needs. But if that’s the case, which skills are becoming more redundant? Javeed says those who are building applications in-house are living on borrowed time.

“The people who have been just focusing on keeping the skillsets of in-house development are becoming redundant because this part of world is moving towards standards-based off-the-shelf applications. They have to focus on more web-based technologies and programming. People used to be very strong in Oracle development, that’s becoming redundant because there’s not much inhouse development going on.”

Even vendors face many of these pressures. Wael El Nadi, technology solutions manager, Turkey, Middle East and North West Africa at EMC says that while certain skills may rise and fall in favour, they will always have some requirement. However, they become commodity skills, as opposed to highly-prized and paid ones.

“For example, an ERP consultant is always there – you can find plenty of them in India or Egypt. These guys come with the projects so they are  not permanent staff for an IT division. You’ll find that Oracle is much easier to find and does not require as high a calibre as needed five years back. I don’t recommend that people spend their time learning Oracle or Cisco because these things are becoming much easier, and with technology advancements, one guy can do the job of three. Plenty of them are in the market anyway, with cheaper prices,” he declares.

With budgets on the decline and IT under pressure to cut costs, many turn to outsourcing to save on the salary and entitlement costs of large numbers of employees.

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