Hiring and retaining IT staffs in the Middle East is going to get even more challenging should CIOs depend on expats to meet demands. Duncan MacRae gets some reaction from regional managers.
The Computer Research Association's recent findings suggest that the number of students embarking on computer science studies in the US has dropped by 50% in the last five years, while the need for corporate IT workers has been growing.
Similarly, in a survey of its members, the Society of Information Management (SIM) - an organisation of CIOs - found that around 40% of information managers are trying to increase their staffs, with another 33% hoping to maintain current staffing levels.
The situation in the Middle East is worse. And is being aggravated by the fact that the low pool of homegrown talent often look to develop their early careers elsewhere. Also, the once seemingly limitless labour pool from the sub-continent is today being persuaded to stay at home to support the local burgeoning IT sector or is lured to work in the West to meet its IT skills shortages.
It is hardly surprising then that while the SIM survey concluded that developing and retaining information technology workers is now the number two concern for CIOs, after IT and business alignment, the consensus in the Middle East is that it is the top concern, especially as many countries are now upping their national employee quotas. Being able to throw money at the problem is not always a solution.
One man who recently had to come up with an alternative is Sameer Khoory, IT manager with e-TQM College, Dubai.
Three months ago he advertised job vacancies at the college. He was looking for the likes of a system administrator, network administrator and security officer.
"We advertised through local newspapers, through friends and IT directors and any other way we could think of and from that we received around 1,000 CVs," says Khoory. "Can you imagine that out of all of them only 1% were UAE nationals? I was looking for people who had, for example, a CIEE certificate to handle the network administrator with MCSE 2003.
“Out of the thousand-plus CVs only 10 candidates had this and, of course, these were non-Emiratis. I was confused about that and was finding it very difficult to get skilled workers with experience to handle our whole network, seeing as we migrate everything from Cisco.
“I wasn't able to get an experienced local engineer because they won't come to work in the government sector for the type of salary we can afford.
"I asked one of the locals, who was a certified engineer, to join the college and I offered him AED24,000 per month.
“He refused it, though, as a private company was offering him AED37,000 plus benefits."
The answer to his problem, however, was just a phone call away. It was the UAE's Colleges of Technology he turned to, offering one of their recent graduates training to obtain certification within a year and investing in him with a starting salary of AED16,000. He adds: "This is the best way to invest in local staff as we simply cannot compete with the private firms."
And then there is the obvious - when trying to attract employees it is vital that companies actually make the jobs sound attractive, and play to their individual strengths.
Being part of the government there are restrictions on benefits the e-TQM college can offer to attract employees. That being said, their engineer will only work from 8am to 3pm, which are decent hours when compared to most private companies with long hours working until 6pm. This would be a major point for an engineer with a family, or for anyone who would like to continue their studies in their free time after work.
"Also, with government work there is more job security than in the private sector and there are some positive points as far as health insurance and housing are concerned," says Khoory.
"The most negative aspect of the government sector is that the salary increases are not as good as private sector increases and we don't have the likes of overtime, bonus or yearly incremental.
"In 2007, however, the government will introduce a new system which will allow us to give engineers such bonus, but there is no official percentage on the amount at the moment."
It's not just the government sector that is feeling the strain though. Private sector companies too are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit the quality of staff to meet their individual needs.
Derek Holland, Head of Emirates Media Information Technology Centre, believes there are plenty of skilled IT labourers out there but questions how many of them have the necessary experience or proficiency to deliver key services in a proactive manner, catering for the specific needs of an organisation.
The biggest challenge CIOs face, he says, is in attracting the resources to address or meet core competencies required. "Aligning technology to business needs is one of my main challenges," says Holland. "And simply engaging technically skilled individuals or teams isn't the answer.
"You have to work with, and try to develop, your resources to meet the ever-changing and developing requirement. In general, I am happy with my current team but would like to seek others who will bring additional value and benefits."
Training and personal development is a crucial requirement of any organisation's resources, according to Holland, but he is certain that the time and money spent on it is worth it in the long run. "The very fact that training doesn't come cheap can be viewed as somewhat of a barrier," he says. "Especially where decision makers are focused on the tangibles and not the intangibles.”
So if it really is essential to make such investments, where is the best place to turn to for training?
Although the quality of IT training in the likes of the UK and the US has generally been regarded as being of a higher standard than the training available in the Middle East over the years, there is still some debate as to whether it is still the best option. "The attraction of luring staff from the UK or the USA is not as it was five to 10 years ago, due to inflation, high salary expectations, Emiratisation, etc," says Holland. "But if it gives an organisation a distinctive competence or competitive edge, this option should be considered if these factors can't be met with the local workforce market."
Khoory can also see the benefits of looking further afield for skill development, after studying in both the UK and Dubai.
He says: "There are a lot of institutions giving IT training but they are only good for getting certification or padding out peoples' CVs. But when it comes to training, which will develop the work, they are poor.
"I found the data transfer to be better in Europe. I tend to find that the best place for IT training, though, is in India where a course you could do in Dubai in six months can be done at a fraction of the cost and time.
"So you could do the six-month boot camp course in India in 25 days and for me, as an IT director, I can't wait six months for my engineer to complete certification."
And as if it wasn't difficult enough attracting and training people to meet a company's needs, there then comes the mammoth task of holding on to them, particularly the good ones.
Of course, the training of employees is important for a business but it is also essential for any individual who has career ambitions they hope to fulfil.
Not only will staff appreciate the fact that their employer is willing to encourage their development, but if their training takes a year then that is an extra year the company has successfully retained their talent.
Holland also believes that not underestimating the worth of employees can also have a positive effect. He says: "The 'People-First' concept where employees are seen as the most important asset promotes high morale, dedication and loyalty. This can only improve the concepts of feeling engaged, empowered and valued resulting in the fulfilment of duties aligned to business objectives."
This nurturing of employees is something that many other CIOs in the region are putting more focus on, including Abdallah El Kadi, group IT manager with Al Rostamani Group of Companies.
As well as transforming its IT department into an independent company to allow it to provide better career plans and pay structures for employees, the company has also developed a programme to promote selfdevelopment through certification.
This is achieved by providing dedicated time for examinations and reimbursing certification costs on success. El Kadi explains: "We have encouraged the creation of an innovation culture in the team, thus allowing time for research and development for those who believe they have ideas worth exposing to management. This was implemented as we recognised that the only way to satisfy a skilled IT worker is by giving him some extra space to explore and create."
El Kadi, however, feels that the government could be doing far more to help businesses in the region. He explains: "In order to be able to attract and most importantly retain skilled IT resources, the government should assist organizations by trying to control non-productive inflation, which has a direct effect on the ability of companies to compete on the global skilled IT workers market, while eliminating visa banning regulations." It is only by attracting such professionals, he feels, that Middle East-based companies can successfully complete their transformation from local organisations into global enterprises.
There are other tricks of the trade that CIOs can look at working on such as mentoring their own replacement - something many shy away from, fearing they may quickly become overshadowed by their own trainee. Annual reviews of employees’ CVs can also help to keep things fresh and maintain constant development. Someone with nothing to add to their CV may feel their career has become stale, while their IT manager may be left wondering why the worker has nothing new to offer them.
The bottom line is that if a company does not offer its staff enough to keep them interested, as far as money, career-development and a pleasant working environment is concerned, there will always be another who will.
And while not all Middle East companies are dripping in wealth, there is no real excuse for not rewarding staff with at least a reasonably competitive salary.