The missing piece

Regional governments are increasing their emphasis on workforce localisation programmes. For the private sector, the skills of national employees need to meet their requirements. So what needs to happen for widespread localisation of the IT workforce to take place?

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The missing piece Increasing the number of qualified IT professionals locally is vital if workforce localisation goals are to be reached
By  Keri Allan Published  October 11, 2011

It’s no secret that the Middle East has a major problem with youth unemployment. But with tens of thousands of foreign expats employed in the region, it is also painfully apparent that there is a huge disconnect between the skills needed by companies in the region and the education system in the Gulf.

On the surface it seems that as Gulf economies evolve, experienced ‘expert’ expatriates have come in to fill skills gaps whilst local workers develop their expertise. But what are the holes that CIOs are struggling to fill, how quickly are the locals skilling up and how can the IT industry itself help things along?

There are a number of skills where the region needs more local knowledge and experience. Indeed, being trained in an application area isn’t enough; employers are looking for professionals who understand the processes as well and have experience using the associated tools in a business environment. Areas for improvement include knowledge and experience of IT architecture, design and implementation of more complex systems, system management, and business analytics amongst others.

“For our technical roles, it can be challenging to find locally-based candidates with enough experience of very large, complex projects in big organisations,” highlights Paula Leech, human resources director, Microsoft Gulf.

“Candidates with expertise in cloud computing can also be hard to come by - cloud has become a highly sought-after skill very quickly and so it’s no surprise that there aren’t very many people in the local market who have developed this expertise to the kind of level we are seeking.

“Security is another hot skill – there are many candidates with experience of technical security solutions but there is a lack of candidates who can combine that experience with the ability to advise senior business and government decision makers about their company’s security policy.”

Every CIO highlights the lack of skills as the biggest challenge and greatest risk. It’s currently a juggling game for them, where they try to balance the make-up of staff between expats and the local workforce whilst trying to combine underlying skill-sets with specific prior experience.

“The challenges are becoming more sophisticated, rather than simply the acquisition of a particular technical skill,” says Matthew Boice, vice president, EMEA and India, SunGard Higher Education. “The expansion of the labour pool has largely addressed underlying skills, the application of these skills in particular industries and institutional environments is creating a new requirement for the maturity of experience in the labour market.”

Although there are many barriers to overcome, localisation targets are important to employers, who are working hard to try to meet them. And it’s not just skills that are an issue here – traditionally, local professionals are more attracted to government or local organisations. Therefore private and multinational companies need to be proactive and market themselves to the local talent.

“To put it bluntly, companies are afraid to hire locals as the criteria/employment laws are not the same for everybody and differ for expats and locals. On the other hand, locals tend to work in government or semi government entities rather than enterprise,” notes Stephan Berner, managing director of help AG Middle East. “I personally think it is wrong and it is absolutely essential to integrate Emiratis within all work functions of the enterprise, not only government functions. It is very important for the development of the country. As long as the young Emiratis do not step into enterprise business they cannot really compete on the market and as long as they cannot compete they will not learn how to succeed or fail. Company or personal growth can only happen by making mistakes and I think that the current employment system is based on making no mistakes at all, therefore people are afraid of the consequences.”

The IT sector as a whole agrees that local talent should be able to compete for the same jobs and promotions as the expat workers, however it seems that they don’t want to remove expats entirely from the region. As Bashar Kilani, IBM territory manager Middle East, Gulf and Levant says: “Companies should employ the best talent, regardless of whether they are local or expats.”

Focusing on education, there is a positive outlook looking forward. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is perhaps one of the world’s biggest investors in education right now. This fact is often overlook in global terms, however, regionally this will create an education powerhouse that has the potential to truly make a difference to the localisation of future IT professionals in the Gulf.

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