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Sun 1 Apr 2007 11:52 AM

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Back to basics

The Middle East's network infrastructure market has enjoyed a boom in recent years leading to a dearth of skilled staff in the region. Ronan Shields speaks to leading industry figures to investigate.

As the Middle East advances towards market liberalisation, entrepreneurs and multi-national corporations are converging on the region to take advantage of the growing commercial opportunities posed by its ‘emerging' markets.

The ensuing boom in the Middle East's construction market has had a knock-on effect for the region's network and system integration industry as both sectors scurry to meet the growing demand for IT infrastructure.

The apparent overnight boom of the industry has resulted in a reported shortage of skilled staff across many sections of the IT sector. However, pundits highlight that cable infrastructure installation and maintenance is a worryingly undervalued segment of the industry.

The phenomenon of contractors cutting corners in the deployment of IT infrastructure is well documented with regional professionals expressing dismay at the levels of expertise in the Middle East.

Andrew Stevens, managing director of CableNet Training, one of the UK's biggest independent training providers of infrastructure technology, warns that systems integrators and construction companies underestimate this segment of the market at their peril.

"The core element of an efficient cable infrastructure system is ensuring that it is designed and installed correctly. What we do is train staff to design a network cable infrastructure, how to install, maintain and how to package it to a customer," comments Stevens.

In addition, CableNet Training has undertaken a regional marketing strategy of marketing its services through distribution channels by teaming up with cabling and fibre optic firm Mayflex, and claims that a highly skilled engineering team is a saleable asset.

The company forecasts the regional market potential for its services is so large it plans to open an office in Dubai's Knowledge Village after receiving positive feedback at last year's GITEX in Dubai.

"We highlight to our partners that cable infrastructure is now the fourth utility, similar to water and electricity, and it must be installed to the same high standards as any of the other utilities," says Stevens.

"At present cable infrastructure is installed almost as an afterthought. In this day and age if an office network goes down most businesses will grind to a standstill, and I can guarantee you that when this happens the vast majority of the time it will be caused by poor network installation."

However, he does highlight that system integrators are increasingly realising the need for them to invest heavily in the skillset of their staff to meet this requirement.

"Currently we are working closely with a lot of cable manufacturers, consultancies and end users to emphasise the level of workmanship required to operate in an efficient manner."

Kandasamy Ganesan, networking consultant of e-sharp and district chair for Building Industry Consultation Services International (BICSI), asserts that the increase in speacialised IT-infrastructure engineers has led to a growing maturity in the Middle East market.

"End users are beginning to demand higher standards from their system integrators as the emergence of IT consultants in the region is increasing levels of awareness," he says.

Stevens also indicates that the trend is in contrast to the interests of construction companies eager to capitalise on the growing demand for office space in the region.

"The first instinct of most construction companies is to minimise cost and this is the biggest challenge we face in expanding our business.

"I cannot emphasise how incredibly shortsighted a policy this is," he adds. "Our marketing activities highlight how this is a long-term investment that will enhance the brand-equity of companies who take advantage of our services."

Stevens also cites research asserting that re-installing a flawed cable networking infrastructure costs three times more than contracting a highly trained professional to originally carry out the job.

Ganesan also notes that supply has not necessarily met demand. "The dynamic nature of the market here, combined with a comparative lack of training opportunities in the region has led to many engineers to receive their training on the job."

The high levels of staff turnover in the Middle East's IT infrastructure sector has led to many companies to adopt a reluctant attitude towards investing in the skillset of their staff claim critics. Ganesan highlights the potential benefits for every strata of the market if IT infrastructure companies invested more heavily in the skillset of their staff more actively.

"By promoting a culture of learning among their staff, IT companies can skirt many of the problems that they are currently encountering such as staff retention and the subsequent skills gap," explains Ganesan.

"Many companies adopt a practice model offering limited scope to learn basic skills. Systems integrators are often concerned with generating an immediate profit but this comes at the expense of their reputation over the longer term."

However, vendor Sun Microsystems counters these claims and maintains the high levels of staff turnover are part and parcel of business given the rapidly developing nature of the market.

"Admittedly, the fluctuation rate of staffing levels is very high in the Middle East compared to other regions of the world but this is merely a reflection of the nature of the economy," says Dr Thomas Bayer, Sun Microsystems' chief learning officer for South and East EMEA.

"Our strategy is to counteract high levels of staff turnover is not to under-invest in our staff as the reputation of our company is reliant on their ability to make our solutions and hardware an asset to our clients."

Industry insiders also report that job satisfaction is a prime determinant in many engineers' decision to leave their jobs. "I have encountered many employees who have left their companies claiming they are not receiving enough opportunities to learn, and who have subsequently become disillusioned," says Ganesan.

Many sources also claim the rush to generate new office space has led to some of the fundamental aspects of service provision being overlooked by cable vendors who fail to see how the benefits of employing highly trained staff.

Training providers are also calling for companies in the Middle East's IT industry to abandon the ‘box-pushing' model of the past and to adopt a more sophisticated service-orientated attitude when negotiating, and implementing, large contracts.

"A lot of the cable manufacturers are going to the extent of providing 25-year warranties on their products as the market becomes more competitive," says Stevens.

"But if they're offering a warranty on a high-profile deal while relying on a poorly trained maintenance team they are carrying out a fool's errand."

So with training providers clearly stressing the need for a high standard of staff training necessary, just what is the pedigree of engineering staff recruited by systems integrators?

"Primarily infrastructure companies recruit two types of entry-level engineers: firstly there are the installers, or technicians, who are educated to diploma level; secondly there are employees educated to degree-level in a discipline such as IT or engineering," says Ganesan.

While many of the region's companies are recruiting highly qualified staff many emphasise the need for companies to foster a culture of continual learning.

"Many companies are now using Category 6 and 7 cabling systems for the first time in the region, meaning engineers will have to update their knowledge to facilitate this new technology," says Stevens.

The constantly evolving nature of infrastructure technology demonstrates the need for companies to regularly update their installation practices using independent companies.

Both e-sharp and CableNet Training heavily stress how educational bodies such as BICSI and Edexcel accredit their respective training courses.

"Our courses maintain very high standards by using a qualified technical trainer and not a sales guy who has a conflict of interests," says Ganesan.

"Manufacturers have moved from training staff with their own in-house instructors, which usually lasted for a day or two, to establishing a prolonged programme of educational courses that are independently accredited," says Stevens.

He predicts that trends in the Middle East's network cabling infrastructure industry will emulate the UK market.

"I have been coming to work in the Middle East for the previous eight years and in that time the development of the market has been nothing short of phenomenal," says Stevens.

"Fifteen years ago a network would have been installed at the very end of a building's construction process and installed in any space that was left over. Now the trend is towards the designing the entire building around the communications hub," he says.

Industry insiders report a growing awareness among systems integrators in realising their responsibility towards both their clients and employees by increasing levels of investment in staff training.

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