By Roger Field
A shortage of skilled ICT professionals has been on the horizon for some time, but the problem is now making itself felt in earnest.
With high mobile penetration rates, falling ARPU and growing competition, telecom operators in the Middle East face their share of challenges. And now, a lesser-discussed challenge is also making itself felt.
A shortage of skilled ICT professionals has been on the horizon for some time, but with the frenzied levels of growth in the telecommunication industry, the problem now appears to be making itself felt in earnest.
The problem, which is global in scope, is being exacerbated in the Middle East and North Africa by levels of growth that are experienced in few parts of the world. While Western operators are looking to add-on services to sell more handsets and revive ARPU, many companies in the Middle East are enjoying relatively untapped markets, such as Zain in Iraq, and Etisalat in Egypt.
Furthermore, with entire cities being built in countries including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, back-end infrastructure providers are also bidding for valuable contracts to design, build and maintain new networks.
But all of this requires brain as well as brawn. And it seems that demand for telecom specialists, particularly electrical and mechanical engineers is now outstripping supply. Sam Alkharrat, MD for Cisco Systems, says that there is a 27% shortfall of skills in relation to the demand in the Middle East's telecom and IT sectors. This is expected to reach 35% within the next five years and 40% in the next 10 years.
Apart from driving up the cost of projects, the skills shortage is also causing headaches for telecom companies that are increasingly nervous about losing key members of staff to rival companies offering better remuneration packages.
Moreover, with telecommunications skills in demand around the world, professionals in the sector tend to be quite mobile, and are often prepared to up sticks and relocate - often to a new country - if there is sufficient financial incentive.
While the most obvious answer for telecom operators is to outsource parts of their operations, this does little to address the underlying problem. Infrastructure providers and telecom operators will need to work together and with governments to ensure more young people take an interest in the sector and go on to enter the industry. While the problem can be fixed in the medium to long term, the next few years are likely to be tough.