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Sun 29 Jan 2006 04:00 AM

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Baghdad learning

Cisco has teamed up with the UN to increase levels of network education in Iraq as vendors wake up to the importance of developing a skilled local workforce. Stuart Wilson reports.

|~|elkady200.jpg|~|Elkady: We needed to find secure space to set up our labs.|~|It may have been overlooked by many networking vendors in the region to date, but 2006 looks set to be the year when producing a technically skilled workforce finally takes centre stage in the Middle East. The very fact that network management itself has become more demanding, moving beyond a simple break-fix role to one that encompasses a wide range of high-end skills required to obtain maximum network performance within the IT environment, has driven the need for increased education levels within the Middle East IT market.

As the level of technical expertise required to manage a network properly has increased, so too has the difficulty in recruiting and retaining the skilled employees needed to take on this role. With more and more companies now looking to install cutting-edge IT networks to derive business benefits, vendors are starting to realise that ensuring a ready supply of skilled professionals (that can be recruited by employers at reasonable salaries) can give them a competitive edge in the market.

Cisco has already invested significant resources to establish network academies across the region including 10 in Iraq with support from the United Nations. This move into Iraq is testament to the importance of building up a skilled workforce as quickly as possible in markets at an early stage of development. Working in association with universities, colleges and government training centres, Cisco will donate lab kits, training and curriculum material as part of the effort to enhance IT and networking skills available in Iraq.

The plan includes four regional academies supported by the United Nations' Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (UN-ESCWA). Three of the regional academies will be affiliated to public universities in Baghdad, Basra and Mosul with the fourth linked to the private university college of Al-Mansour in Baghdad.

A further six local academies will be set up in other colleges, universities and government training centres close to the sites chosen for the regional academies. Long-term, each regional academy is expected to spawn 10 local academies creating a network of more than 40 learning centres spread throughout Iraq.

The plan to develop a network of local academies started in 2004 with preliminary discussions taking place between Beirut-based UN-ESCWA and Cisco's Middle East organisation. The education initiative now has trainers in place and several student classes have already taken place.

"Prior to initiating our academy programme, we had to ensure that basic services such as water and electricity were available in all four campuses," says Yasser Elkady, general manager for Cisco in the Middle East, North Africa and Levant. "Most sites were found to lack power stability and landline internet access. Additionally we needed to find secure space to set up our training labs."

A total of 13 instructors were trained for a month at the Lebanese American University (LAU) in Beirut to staff the programme. All 13 secured CCNA certification before returning to Iraq to set up the labs.

"Despite having been picked for their qualifications in engineering, IT and computing, the trainers were apprehensive about coming face to face with the latest advances in technology after having been shielded from them for so long," says Hazim Asa'd, ESCWA assigned project coordinator in Baghdad.

"They had to catch up on 25 years of development. Some had had restricted access to the internet before 2003, but many had heard about it without having any firsthand knowledge of it," he says.

The IT and networking technology for the centres, which included laptop computers donated by IBM, was delivered through UN-ESCWA between April and October 2005. Each regional and local academy is expected to teach a minimum of 50 students per annum.

More than ever, vendors are now looking to tie training and education into a specific set of skills that are related uniquely to their own product sets - as opposed to providing those taking the courses with a generic set of skills that are transferable across multiple vendors’ offerings.

Undoubtedly, some of the skills acquired are transferable, but increasingly in the networking arena, various certifications and qualifications are tied to one particular vendor. The region is also witnessing an increased trend for vendors to look at how they can actually tie up with universities and further education establishments to train up the next generation of network professionals before they even hit the IT workplace.

3Com is another vendor with big plans to accelerate its learning initiatives in the Middle East during 2006 and harbours plans to link up with key educational establishments in the region to further its goals. 3Com will have some way to go to catch up with Cisco, which has already developed extensive networking education programmes across the region.

For example, in Saudi Arabia, Cisco opened an all-women networking academy at Effat College, Jeddah in September 2005. The initiative has strong support from Saudi authorities and Cisco is also working with the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) to ensure that female graduates from the academy find positions in female-only IT sections of schools, banks and other organisations. It is also worth noting that in Jordan some 40% of all Cisco networking academy students are female.

Developing an educated workforce and an ample supply of skilled labour goes hand-in-hand with striving for greater market share in the Middle East. You can't sell a networking solution to a customer if there's nobody within the end-user organisation to manage and oversee it. It is something that smaller vendors need to realise, especially if they bemoan the fact that customers routinely select one of the global giants over and above their niche offering.This is why network education has become so important in the Middle East during the last twelve months.

The only way this will ever really change is if customers start to embrace remote management of their networks. At present, the propensity of customers to choose this option remains severely limited in the Middle East and, as such, the need for vendors to provide a skilled and plentiful workforce within the region for their solutions will persist throughout 2006.||**||

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