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Sun 26 Nov 2000 04:00 AM

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Low salaries, poor skills & job vacancies

Are you happy with your salary? Does your department have enough trained staff for the job? Are there adequate training facilities in the Middle East? How can companies hold onto their best IT talent? ACN asked the vital questions...

Are you happy with your salary? Does your department have enough trained staff for the job? Are there adequate training facilities in the Middle East? How can companies hold onto their best IT talent? ACN asked the vital questions...

Possibly the most important factor in any IT environment, from the biggest legacy mainframe, to the smallest dot-com startup deployment is not the hardware, the software, middleware or even the network.

E-businesses don’t always fail because they don’t get the infrastructure right first time; e-government takes more than investment to make it happen. The most important factor in any successful IT deployment is getting the right people.

Time and time again, the worst problem faced by the IT manager is not getting the nuts and bolts right, but getting the staff to put the system together, and to keep it running.

The Middle East is notoriously difficult for keeping the personnel that can make the difference between getting it right and an IT disaster. The region’s employment market has been plagued for years by migrant workers from richer and poorer countries, attracted by high salaries and other incentives but ultimately with no commitment to their host countries, and by local workers drastically lacking in the IT skills and education to be able to fill the same posts.

So what is the state of the employment market in the region? Who are the workers running the projects, what do they want from their jobs, and will they still be around to take on tomorrow’s challeneges, or are they just in it for the money?

The ACN employment survey tried to find out.

The ACN employment survey was posted on www.itp.net, the website of ITP, the publishers of ACN, during September and October of this year.

Visitors to the site were invited to complete a questionnaire hosted on the site. Links were also established through recruitment websites aimed at those looking for work in the Middle East. The 35 questions in the online survey covered such areas as origins of the workforce, education, salary, skills, training and future employment prospects.

The survey was posted in English, although it is hoped that in future an Arabic language version will also be posted simultaneously.

In all there were 211 eligible responses, from cities as far apart as Hyderabad, Limassol and Bucharest. The greatest number of responses came from those based in Dubai — about one third of all respondents. Significant numbers of respondents were also recorded in Riyadh, Cairo, Jeddah, Sharjah, Muscat and Kuwait City, with almost all Arab countries represented.

Respondents were working in a wide variety of fields, with concentrations in retail and general trading, construction and government. Job categories were equally as broad, with executive heads, such as sales managers, marketing managers, and heads of accounting as well represented as those in general non-technical roles. Out of the specifically technical roles, systems support engineer and programmer was the most common occupation, but most positions were equally represented. Length of service was spread equally too.

The same, however, could not be said of salaries. Assessment of an average salary posed some difficulties, owing to widely varied responses. While some discrepancies can be put down to poor phrasing in the survey, (a problem that was remedied part way through the sampling period with a revised questionnaire) it seems more likely that the situation equally reflects the wide range of salary expectations between different countries in the region.

Overall, an adjusted average figure of US$1690 per month, inclusive of all benefits, was calculated as being the most accurate.

More value can be gained from considering that 58% of respondents made less than $1000 per month, and 76% made less than $2000 per month. The top-ranking technical position was IT management and technical head, with an avergae monthly salary of around $6000.

Programmers and system support managers both made around $1700 per month, followed by network and systems administrators — classed as technical manager — making $1100. At the bottom were the network engineers on just $700 per month. These figures are drawn from a relatively small sample.

US and European IT professionals are paid much better, although cost of living and other concerns have to be considered. For comparison, programmers in the West can make about $3000 per month, a senior developer might recieve $4000-$6000 per month, and a senior consultant may make $10000 per month.

Even an uncertified junior support worker can make $1500, (figures taken from silicon.com).

One of the most commonly held notions about IT workers in the Middle East is that they are mobile when it comes to work — afterall, for many migrant workers, their occupation is the only reason for them to visit the country where they are based.

Surprisingly then, the survey would suggest that the workforce is a lot less transitory than is usually believed. Although a significant proportion of respondents were keen to move within one year, over one half expected to remain in their same job for more than two years.

Given that respondents were visiting the survey from recruitment websites, and presumably looking for a new job, this is even more surprising.

Less surprising perhaps, given that many workers in the Middle East are attracted by high, tax-free salaries, and that IT is rarely a badly paid industry anyway, is that most respondents are satisified with their salaries.

Well over half of respondents reported that they were satisfied, which should be good news for employers considering that a higher salary was stated as being the most attractive factor to any new job.

This goes against the perceived wisdom on why people change jobs — generally salary is ranked third or fourth after better working conditions or better prospects as reasons for leaving a job. Salary only forms part of the overall package.

The emphasis placed on salary may mark a cultural difference — better salary was given as the most common reason for leaving previous employment, and one of the biggest complaints from US IT workers is of high pressure and long working hours, conditions that are the norm in the Middle East and the Subcontinent.

Probably the greatest source of pain for IT managers is finding enough skilled staff. Just under half of all survey respondents said that they were carrying out tasks they had not been trained for, ranging from human resources and marketing of products to full scale application development. Almost 40% of respondents said that their company did not have enough trained staff, a situation which is expected, if undesirable.

In the past, the solution was to throw money at bringing in skilled staff, or to simply hope that your existing staff could learn as they went along. The past eighteen months has seen a shift in this attitude, however, as employers come to realise that they need to invest in training for the staff they already have.

Over half of repsondents had received professional training in the past year, two thirds of which was technical training.

By far the most common professional qualification held was the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer, with similar entry-level qualifications from Novell, Oracle and Sun also popular, as well as a large number of CAD qualifications.

Standards of training seemed to be high, with 88% of respondents reporting that they were satisfied with the training. In line with expectations, a considerable proportion of training, (17%) was carried out outside of the Middle East, indicating that the region still cannot fully satisfy the needs of the workforce.

Most repsondents (90%) also reported a need for more training, with technical skills coming top of the list for areas that needed improvement. This raises some question over the other great pain for IT managers — staff retention.

Even if you can locate and train suitable staff, that does not mean that they will not up and leave for a better paid position with someone else. A huge problem for the Middle East has been employees using the region as a springboard for careers in the US or elsewhere. The region’s employers have paid for training only to watch their investment walk out of the door. This has led to a situation where employers have become reluctant to train employees.

However, according to the survey, trained staff are no more likely to leave than untrained staff — both groups were as likely to leave their current employment (46%) within two years.

Peter Krol, manager of Informatics Computer Institute says that training doesn’t necessarily mean staff will move. “If the company has something positive to offer, then I do not see why the staff should leave,” he said.

“Competitiveness in the IT field right now, in terms of recruitment, is very high and people are offering premium packages for IT related jobs, certified people usually do earn more money, — it doesn't necessarily get them the job but it may open the door.”

Patrick Luby, general manager of recruitment agency Clarendon Parker Middle East, suggests that a company’s attitude towards training is just part of the reason why staff move.

“Companies that do not look after their staff, but send them on a training course because the staff cannot do the job without the training, are then surprised if the staff move on later,” he commented. “I think training, if it is part of the employment process together with appraisals, performance reviews, salary reviews, a bonus scheme, good promotion prospects, tends to increase loyalty rather than give the person a ticket to get a better job. That said sometimes you do all this and people still move on.”

Trained staff are certainly more inclined to go further afield when looking for a new job. 31% of trained staff expected their next job to be in the West, against 23% of staff who had not received training in the past twelve months.

This increase seemed to be mostly at the expense of the region — 62% of untrained staff did not plan to leave the Middle East in their next move against 56% of trained staff. Considering the large number of respondents that were surveyed from Asia, very few intended to return to the Subcontinent with their next move, only 4% of the total number of respondents.

Probably the most striking results from the survey are those relating to training. The high proportion of people that are performing tasks that they have not be been trained for is of concern. Ad hoc development benefits no-one in the long term, and building up the skill set of the region will take proper training. The problem is related to the standard of training that is available in the region, and employers attitudes to it.

If 17% of training is carried out outside the Middle East, then that represents not a large cost to the employer but also a loss to the local IT training market. Local trainers need to stay up to speed with developing technologies, and constantly sending trainees the US or Europe is not a long term solution.

The high number of people paying for their own training is also worrying. Many companies are becoming increasingly reluctant to shoulder the full burden of training, with various schemes in place where companies only pay part of an employees’ training costs or loan the employee the fees.

With the relatively high turnover of staff in the region, it is not surprising employers do not want to spend money on certification for staff who will then leave, but at the same time staff need skills to do their job, and businesses can’t compete without those skills. An answer needs to be found to the problem of staff retention, but with no concrete answers on how to keep employees happy, the solution isn’t yet clear.

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