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Thu 30 Nov 2006 12:00 PM

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HR skills at the table

When human resources experts from the region took part in a roundtable discussion last month, they found plenty to talk about. Duncan MacRae finds out how they are trying to overcome skills shortages and develop their human capital.

The first of Sage Software's new roundtable discussions took place in Dubai earlier this month, aimed at sharing experiences and knowledge on a variety of the region's most topical IT issues. Following the response to ACN's article last month on the increasing difficulties IT managers are having in recruiting and retaining skilled IT workers, it was no surprise that this was chosen as the first subject for debate among some of the Middle East's top human resource experts.

Representatives from Al Tayer Group, Shell EP International Ltd and Dubai Silicon Oasis Authority were just some of the speakers on hand to bounce ideas off each other.

The event, hosted by Marc Van der Ven, managing director, Sage Software Middle East, drew many interesting thoughts on education, training and the risks of developing workers' skills. Kenneth Hughes, head of technical recruitment, Dubai Silicon Authority, said his life was spent searching for that one very rare person who could meet his company's specialised needs. "As far as I'm aware, universities in the Middle East can't supply the type of people we're looking for," Hughes explained.

"I haven't found one Gulf Arabian chip designer. There probably is one but he's probably earning a fortune in Silicon Valley."

Hughes added that if you want to attract quality workers then you are going to have to stump up the cash for it. He said: "These days you can't just rely on the lure of the sun, sea and tax-free earnings. I'm afraid it takes a bit more than that.

"If you take someone and train them up, then their market value rises. You need to pay them more or you risk losing them.

“It's a difficult call. I see lots of IT CVs - network administrators, system administrators, IT managers etc. The place seems to be awash with them.

“I suspect high salary expectations is the main reason companies struggle to find what they're looking for. But, as we all know, you only get what you pay for."

These thoughts were clearly backed up by others present at the discussion. Dalia Zaghou, learning & training manager, Al Tayer Group, said: "A lot of companies are scared of spending time and money to train staff because they're worried that they're going to take these new skills and move on elsewhere.

“This is part of the risk, but where in life is there no risk? What are the risks if you don't train? “Developing employees' isn't a luxury anymore - it's a necessity."

Companies can go some way to eliminating these risks, however, Zaghou explained. "Recruitment is very costly so recycling talent is the best way to go. A junior should be made to feel that if they stay with a company and work hard then they will be allowed to work their way up to where they want to go.”

She added: “If that's not the case then they are going to have much less motivation to work hard or even stay with the company."

Dangling the carrot in front of employees and giving them this encouragement to better themselves within their company actually seems to be even more important than offering hefty salaries. Zaghou added: "If staff are going to be happy in the workplace then they need to feel free to speak up and develop as a human being as well as an employee.

"If this is the case then it can be far more appealing than just earning a lot of money, so there is an incentive there for companies to make an effort in attracting and motivating people." Freddy Becker, policy, compensation and benefits manager, Shell EP International Ltd, Middle East, Caspian and South Asia, also pointed out the great benefits or learning on the job. "Training is obviously very important, but not only formal training. Learning is part of what you do every day when you're at work," he said.

"Employees shouldn't be scared of making mistakes while they're still going through the learning process either, so it's up to employers to turn what could be a fearful process into a learning experience.

"At Shell we encourage our more experienced employees to share their bad experiences with the younger workers. Talking about it helps everyone to learn and benefit and, hopefully, prevent a repeat of those bad experiences.

"That is definitely a challenge though because you don't want to destroy people's egos." Becker went on to explain that better links between Middle East companies and local universities could make a world of difference when it comes to educating people and preparing them for life in the real working world.

"There really needs to be better communication with universities but, most importantly, you need to be able to see what will be needed a few years further down the line," Becker said. "What skills will companies require? What type of employees will be needed to take your company to the next level in the years to come?

“Training, conferences, and talks like this to increase awareness are exactly what we need more of. "There is plenty of fantastic talent in the region. We just need to nurture it.

“What makes life a little bit easier for us at Shell is that we are at the top of our market and that is the differentiator. People want to come and work for us just because of who we are. “Also, within our business we have flexibility that allows our staff's training to lead them down whatever career path they want."

Zaghou also questioned whether luring expatriates to the Middle East from the likes of the UK was really necessary, or even that beneficial.

She said: "It takes two to tango - you need business and you need people. The awareness of this talent problem was maybe not there for the past four or five years but it is definitely picking up. “Companies in the region are putting more emphasis on training and there are more universities providing students with the skills they need.

"Do you really need to bring people from the UK or the USA? What are you getting at the end of the day?"

Sage hopes to host a series of other debates with some of the region's most respected IT experts every two months on a variety of other topics.

“If you take someone and train them up, then their market value rises. You need to pay them more or you risk losing them. It's a difficult call.”

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