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Thu 14 Aug 2008 04:00 AM

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Caught short - ME channel struggles with staffing

The sight of empty office desks is not one that IT providers want to see, but it's becoming increasingly common as the Middle East channel struggles with the challenge of recruiting and maintaining skilled resources.

The sight of empty office desks is not one that IT providers want to see, but it's becoming increasingly common as the Middle East channel struggles with the challenge of recruiting and maintaining skilled resources.

Talk of a skills shortage in the Middle East IT market would have been laughed off a few years ago, but for many players in the industry this sorest of subjects now represents a serious threat to their business.

If anything, the Middle East channel has more to lose than most of its global contemporaries because the market simply isn't capable of fulfilling its potential if companies lack the right competencies.

The same thing that happened in these markets a few years ago is now happening in India so some people are switching back because there are now better packages on offer for them.

There is no denying that concerns over skills shortages have reached fever pitch during the past year, with executives from both IT manufacturers and their channel partners candidly admitting that sourcing qualified talent is the thing that keeps them most awake at night.

Distributors and resellers, especially, are feeling the pinch. With their profitability heavily tied to rebates and staff accreditations, the potential consequences are disastrous if the conveyor belt of talent stops turning.

If mounting anecdotal evidence from the regional market is not enough to convince doubters that the skills pool is drying up, there is plenty of quantitative data to support the argument.

A study commissioned by Cisco and IDC forecasts that demand for networking skills in the UAE alone is poised to exceed supply by as much as 27% next year; a projection that would translate into a shortage of 19,000 people if it materialised.

IDC also estimates that only 65% of the 114,000 job vacancies for skilled IT professionals will be filled in the Middle East next year.

It's a dire scenario, and one that the research house warns could get worse. Without a marked improvement, the skills shortfall in the Middle East could widen to a massive 50% within the next seven years.

In some respects, fears over the skills deficiency have been proliferated by the rapid pace at which the market has developed.

Vendors and resellers have expanded faster than their HR departments have been able to keep up with, perpetrating a culture based on winning business first and then worrying about how to fulfil it later.

With corporate end-users also responding to the same sort of growth challenges by investing in their IT infrastructures, many VARs across the region are having to operate well below capacity because they don't want to give up the business.

To compound an already tense situation, the Middle East channel hasn't experienced the consolidation visible in developed markets, meaning there is not an abundance of skilled channel professionals seeking immediate work.Markets where a high level of technical aptitude is required appear to be under the most stress. "There is a huge shortage in the region in terms of skillsets needed in the power solutions market, especially in the IT site preparation set-up within data centres management and enclosures," explained Vipin Sharma, VP EEMEA and India sales at Tripp Lite.

"The lack is shown clearly in the number of competent professionals needed to fill important positions such as high and medium voltage switch gear experts, electrical installers, UPS installers and UPS technical managers. This has also taken a toll on a number of regional organisations."

It is no surprise that channel players claim to be feeling the heat. Enterprise software outfit Omnix, a distributor of Autodesk software, admits the deficit of knowledgeable IT experts with vertical expertise in booming economies such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar has led it to face serious difficulties.

Companies are hiring trained IT professionals from abroad and paying them an exorbitant amount of money, but they have no choice as the expertise is not always available in the region.

"While the latest technology is taking over the conventional forms of CAD applications, personnel who are trained to operate this new software are scarce," explained Jayant Deshpande, director CAD division at Omnix. "For example, there is a severe shortage of building information modelling experts," he added.

With similar shortfalls cited in other sectors of the enterprise market, one solution has been for companies to draft in resources from outside the region. Although some argue that this is merely compounding the problem, many organisations feel they are being backed into a corner.

"Companies are hiring trained IT professionals from abroad and paying them an exorbitant amount of money, but they have no choice as the expertise is not always available in the region," said Tony Ward, regional sales director at Hitachi Data Systems.

Abdallah Ishaq, general manager at systems integrator GBM Bahrain, believes it is perfectly normal for companies in the IT channel to witness a 10% to 15% annual attrition rate, but he fears the pressure on VARs to deliver larger projects and newer technology threatens to impact this cycle.

He also points out that economic factors are changing the nature of the game, especially among expatriates from the Indian sub-continent, who make up a large proportion of the regional IT workforce.

"Workers are facing demand from their original countries and inflation and currency fluctuation is helping them," suggested Ishaq. "The same thing that happened in these markets is now happening in India so some people are switching back because there are now better packages on offer for them."

Resellers concede that this trend is hitting them hard. "The rising cost of living and other basic necessities adds more woe for the channel partners when it comes to getting skilled resources," said Elie Maamari, administration and HR director at Abu Dhabi-based integrator Emirates Computers.

Vendors find themselves in the same boat. Rising costs in some areas of the region make it a less attractive place to live, while poaching between companies is nudging average salaries to record levels.

"We are in need of experienced key account managers to handle our rapidly growing regional operations. It is not that they are not available, but in view of the escalating cost of living we find that their demands are very high," explained Ranjit Gurkar, general manager at printing manufacturer Brother Gulf.Such is the ubiquity of this threat that vendors and channel players speak of shortages right across the board, from conventional channel sales functions to more gruelling technical support tasks.

Brother Gulf cites a dearth of highly-skilled technical service engineering staff as a worry for the channel - and it is not alone.

Ahmed Zeidan, Middle East channel sales manager at Netgear, believes the skills shortage in the GCC has intensified during the past 12 months, reaching a level where it is threatening the efficiency of the channel. He says that recruiting experienced people with sales skills in the networking solutions field is creating the biggest headache.

Most partners suffer from a lack of staff who are competent in sales, technical knowledge and end-to-end management skills, which are the skills needed to be at the front line.

"There might be enough engineers to serve and offer high value after-sales services, but if there are no well-equipped sales staff to work on project acquisition the company will have a difficult time closing deals," said Zeidan.

In Saudi Arabia, the skills issue continues to dominate conversations in the local channel. Akram Elyas, VP operations and marketing at IT distribution and reseller group ICC, says demand for workers with a solid background in product management, sales management, business development, logistics and supply chain management is particularly acute given the need for detailed technical expertise. "It is not usually easy to find a guy who has a good technical background and at the same time sales and management skills," admitted Elyas.

Like other IT organisations in the regional channel, ICC has started to place more emphasis on hiring newly-graduated staff in an attempt to ensure it has a long-term strategy for bridging the skills gap.

Channel players are quickly starting to realise that if they are to prevail then they must tackle the problem head on.

"It really is survival of the fittest and new, unskilled players are constantly losing business or even shutting down because they are unable to keep up," cautioned Ward at Hitachi Data Systems. "This is also causing a fair amount of churn in the industry because the few highly-skilled qualified people are in such high demand," he commented.

A shortcoming in skills doesn't just heighten the risk of IT providers carrying out unsatisfactory work, but prevents them from fully utilising the potential of the products and services they offer.

Autodesk recently expanded the functionality of its Revit software, but Deshpande at partner Omnix admits the channel will only be able to market this correctly if there is sufficient manpower.

"The lack of skilled software professionals is hindering customers from realising the real advantage of this latest technology," he said.The repercussions of a skills vacuum are already evident in some end-user sectors of the Middle East market.

"In Dubai we have witnessed 30 to 60 minute power cuts in various locations, which led to loss of data in major companies because most of them have faulty power back-up set up by incompetent workers," lamented Sharma at Tripp Lite.

While the general consensus is that the Middle East IT market is experiencing a barren patch when it comes to locating qualified resources, there are those who believe that talk of a full-blown channel skills shortage is somewhat exaggerated.

HP argues that while procuring qualified talent in the UAE, Egypt and Levant remains an ongoing challenge, the availability is there when all said and done. In countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait it is not as easy though.

"This comes from visa restrictions," suggested Bernhard Isemann, Middle East SPO manager at HP.

"I think it is an ongoing problem and it might not be easy to be solved by the industry itself - it simply needs the government to help by easing these restrictions," he said.

Another PC vendor, Lenovo, also refuses to acknowledge that the shortage has deteriorated to ‘crisis levels' just yet, although it openly concedes that the Middle East IT channel is playing ‘catch up' in order to survive.

"Most of the partners that serve SMB to large enterprise accounts suffer from a lack of staff who are competent in sales, technical knowledge and end-to-end management skills, which are the skills needed to be at the front line," said Khaled Kamel, regional manager at Lenovo.

Crisis or not, companies are still looking at what steps they need to take to ensure that a scarcity of talent doesn't derail them. Networking vendor Netgear reveals that it is focusing on broadening the expertise of its existing staff.

"Although we will eventually need to refresh our team with new talent, we are currently focusing on the ones we already have to curb the repercussions of the current skills crisis in the Middle East," explained regional channel boss Ahmed Zeidan.

This philosophy is quickly spreading to other categories of the market. Brother Gulf, for instance, is currently drawing up training programmes that prepare its staff for greater responsibilities, easing the pressure on the company to identify fresh expertise.

"We would rather promote people who have been working with us for they are the ones who are knowledgeable of our business and require less training and supervision," admitted regional boss Ranjit Gurkar.

Other vendors, such as Nortel, are keen to play up the virtues of their technology academies and training schemes, while SAP has just formed a partnership with Kuwait University to create the country's first SAP University Competence Centre that trains students in its range of software products.

Meanwhile, networking giant Cisco has rolled out a portal to help regional partners source networking graduates and certified talent.More than 700 resellers accessed the portal in the opening phase of its launch.

"To help our partners successfully address today's skills and talent shortage, we must look beyond the traditional channel strategies that have focused on providing partner training and programmes," admitted Cisco's director of MEA channels, Guido Romagnoli.

Many vendors say they are increasingly assisting the channel by casting their eye over CVs, or better still, passing on the resumes of strong candidates that are overlooked for their own posts.

Channel players, however, claim that some vendors are guilty of adding to the problem by poaching from the channel to fill their own vacancies.

"Unfortunately vendors are not helping in this area and what makes it worse is that some of them are taking staff from distribution companies without any co-ordination and notice," complained Elyas at ICC in Saudi Arabia.

"Also, some of the vendors are actually asking the distribution companies for help with recruiting good people since market experience usually comes from the distributors and not the vendors."

Whatever the situation, vendors and partners must also look closely at their own internal HR policies as the market fights over limited resources. It's not just about finding employees with the right skills, but retaining them.

"You must motivate them and give them a good package," said Ishaq at GBM Bahrain.

"A guy can't stay for 10 years doing the same job, there needs to be career development. We work on skill development and certification, and then we give the employees a career roadmap."

The Middle East channel is beginning to learn fast that finding and maintaining skilled staff must be considered a business priority. For many, that means exploiting the tools provided by vendor partners and ditching their outdated recruitment policies in favour of a new approach to talent spotting.

Solving the skills shortage

The channel guide to trapping talent

1. Make use of talent portals

An increasing number of vendors are making it their responsibility to help channel partners with their recruitment needs. Whether it's assessing candidates that have been overlooked for vendor positions or tapping into online portals that contain the resumes of qualified sales staff, make the most of the tools that manufacturers are now offering.

2. Take advantage of graduate schemes

Most of the top vendors either have their own graduate training courses or are aligned with specific universities. The results might not be instant, but making use of this talent pool could help you to mould tomorrow's top channel experts.

3. Evaluate your recruitment policies

Do you use the same methods and recruitment tools that you did five years ago? If so, your HR strategy probably needs refreshing. Whether you revise the way you advertise or seek the services of an external recruitment specialist, a change of tactics could just do the trick.

4. Exploit vendor training programmes

Most vendors in the IT market offer their fair share of channel training and education programmes for partners. The key is to tap into the resources that might not be immediately obvious, such as online certification curriculums or technical material. After all, if finding new employees is tough then enhance the knowledge of existing staff instead!

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