On the lookout

It might be just another year in the technology evolution chain, but vendors believe that 2012 will bring with it immense opportunities and innovation in the IT professional scene. Pallavi Sharma explores what’s new and how vendors are helping address the growing skills gap in the region.

From the looks of it, 2012 promises to be a year that will be marked by innovation and co-creation. As enterprises across the globe  look to innovative uses of the latest technology to deal with harsh business realities, vendors will invest in developing solutions that are aimed at helping organisations trim costs and stay competitive in the long run. Together, vendors and end-users will create and drive the demand for the next generation of skilled IT professionals.

Industry experts and analysts believe that rapidly changing technology and turbulent market conditions will together alter the IT recruitment and education landscape. According to BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, while deep technical knowledge will continue to generate interest, IT professionals with hybrid skills will be in higher demand in 2012.  Analysts say that these hybrid skills will  constitute a combination of technical skills and so called ‘soft’ skills in roughly equal proportions, and will be valuable in helping organisations differentiate itself from the competitors.

Jaco Van Zyl, education director, SAP MENA believes that the demand for IT professionals will be stronger across the financial services, public sector and oil and gas verticals. “Picking up from 2011 where the industry witnessed a lot of demand for IT roles in security, granular computing, business intelligence and analytics, 2012 will be dictated by roles that span the arenas of big data, high speed computing, government, risk and compliance as well as business intelligence on mobile devices,” Van Zyl says.

“Whilst we see overall IT market growing at about 5%, there will be increased growth in certain sectors including telecommunications, energy, health and education.  The demand for IT personnel across these verticals will be driven by increasing government focus and investment,” says Toneya Sarwar, HR operations manager at Cisco Middle East.

Sarwar adds, “Today more organisations are using social content platforms like Facebook, Twitter and video conferencing, to provision collaboration. The talent required to develop and maintain these platforms falls into both the hardware and software space, and will influence the verticals mentioned above. In addition to this, IT skills that cover the cloud, mobility, business analytics and cyber security, will be most demanded.”

She adds that with increased demand for smartphone applications, professionals with experience in mobile networks, particularly 4G, will generate keen interest in 2012.

According to Bayt.com, a regional job site, a recent Job Index survey revealed that 65% of employers in the Middle East were looking to hire in 2012. Of these, 12% stated that they were looking to hire across the IT arena. Representatives of the company also said that based on Bayt.com’s Career Watch tool, more employers were looking for IT professionals trained and experienced with Microsoft and Oracle technology in comparison to Cisco or IBM technology.

The company’s VP of products, Omar Tahboub says, “IT jobs in the Middle East primarily fall under three categories- software development, systems administration and implementation. From the jobs listed on our site in 2011, we figure that IT jobs associated with technical support and software development were particularly needed. This year we expect more demand for software development skills across the mobile applications areas, in addition to ERP and security job roles.”

Joachim Worf, EMEA training manager, EMC Education Services, believes that while cloud computing, IT security and data centre operations will influence the job markets, skills associated with data analytics and business intelligence will perhaps be the most talked about in the year to come. “An IDC Whitepaper from June 2011 forecasted that the sharp increase in data creation and the heightened importance of storing, protecting, and managing information has elevated information storage as a central function of the IT infrastructure.  The study also highlighted that although data growth will be around 44 times by the end of the decade, IT staff will grow by less than 50%. This is in line with the findings of the EMC data science study that questioned 500 business intelligence professionals at firms across the US, the UK, France, Germany, India and China. The survey found that the demand for the skills necessary to fully make use of business data generated by mobile sensors, social media, surveillance, medical imaging, smart grids and other areas will outpace supply within five years,” he adds.

The great divide

On the regional front, senior executives believe that rapid technology and business transformations will only widen the existing gap between the supply and demand of local IT skills- a situation that can only be addressed through the joint efforts of regional vendors and universities.

Ahmad AlMulla, VP for IT at Dubai Alumunium (DUBAL) says, “Finding the right skill sets in the region that can help develop and support the latest technology platforms to improve workflows and provision decision making has been a real challenge for the organisation so far. To address this challenge, many organisations like us have to resort to either recruiting qualified international candidates or invest additional resources in training locally hired graduates to familiarise them with the technology platform and their usage across the different segments.”

AlMulla believes a primary reason for the shortage of local IT human resources in the region is the lack of vendor initiatives aimed at developing local talent pools. “Very few vendors in the region have an R&D base in the region. Most vendors are only concerned about regional sales volume and don’t contribute to the growth of the local ICT sector. Vendors and service providers need to do more through internships and training programmes to provision the right skill sets. Regional universities can also help play a role by including curriculum in their IT courses that equip students with practical IT skills that enterprises currently need such as ERP development and maintenance, IT security, mobile application development etc,” he adds.

Tahboub says that the shortcomings of regional universities are primarily to blame for the shortage of ICT skills in the region. “The main problem with IT graduates in the Arab world is that their university education does not prepare them to make real-life decisions or equip them with the skills for specialisations in IT.  Without the necessary training and internship programs to prepare fresh graduates for the real world, both graduates and the companies that hire them are forced to expend additional time and money to train and familiarise them with the systems that they are to maintain and enhance in the long run,” he explains.

SAP’s Van Zyl agrees, although he shares a slightly different perspective. “The issue today is the ICT savvy youths don’t have an environment that is entirely favourable to the development of their professional aspirations. There is a real need to create an ecosystem of ICT entrepreneurship including, but not limited to, adequate legislation, awareness campaigns and various funding mechanisms ranging from ICT-specialised venture capital and private equity to government-backed loans. The problem can be addressed early on through a variety of methods, including K-12 education promoting technical fluency, university and vocational training in specialised, in-demand ICT fields such as ERP, business intelligence and software development. Investing in R&D at selected universities, worldwide research centres and companies, and internships with private and public sector organisations can have a powerful and positive impact on the development of the local ICT sector,” he says.

In addition to this, he believes that providing entrepreneurs with easy access to local and regional markets by carefully assessing and remedying existing inefficiencies in ICT job creation, services flow and the goods movement value chain is a critical factor that governments and organisations in the region need to consider.

Breaking even

“I don’t think there is a lack of ICT talent; rather I believe it is a case where the supply of IT skills does not meet the demand for these skills. The IT industry had boomed in the region in the last few years and the focus on ICT education had not risen with the same speed with which the demand for these technology platforms has increased. Today, the stakeholders are all working towards providing the right resources within universities and schools to create the next generation of local ICT personnel,” EMC’s Worf points out.

Sarwar agrees saying that although the region has so far lacked in its pools of IT talent, there is no doubt that in the next few years the demand and supply for regional IT talent will break even. “As enterprises continue to demand the latest technology to help them sustain business growth in the long run, vendors are beginning to realise the need to support this demand by providing the right set of personnel to help them deploy and manage these systems in the long run.

Both Worf and Sarwar cite EMC and Cisco’s individual efforts at developing educational alliances to help address this skills gap as a testament to growing vendor commitment to help organisations address this challenge and contribute to an IT knowledge base in the region.

According to Worf, the EMC Academic Alliance has educated more than 80,000 students since its inception in 2006 and is active within 750 colleges and universities across 50 participating countries. “Specific to the region, the first implementation of the EMC curriculum within universities in the UAE and Egypt took place this year. Less than two weeks ago, EMC signed an MOU with TECOM to extend this alliance to cover eight prominent universities representing 11 countries. Our aim is to reach out to as many universities as possible to develop a much bigger pool of talent that will then be available to EMC and all the companies in the local ICT market,” he says.

“Cisco contributes to the building of human capital in a country through a number of initiatives such as the Network Academy Programme which covers 60 academies in the UAE, representing 4500 Emirati students and 1000 graduates and the Global Talent Acceleration Programme, whereby Cisco works with its partners to train Network Consulting Engineers. As part of the initiative, graduates are recruited in the region and then sent to Cisco campuses for training and education. Both these examples are symbolic of Cisco’s commitment to invest in the local ICT market,” says Sarwar.

Like other vendors, SAP MENA also provides the SAP Education services in the region both through direct engagement and partnerships.

“We offer segmented courses as per our go-to-market software for small, medium and large enterprises. All courses have been developed taking into account our customers’ ability to roll out SAP training across their organisations. The small enterprise training is delivered through e-based coaching, whereas for medium and for large enterprises training is provided through a blended learning approach, consisting of e-based and classroom-based learning,” says Van Zyl.

In addition to the efforts regional vendors are making to help even the skills gap, the region is also witnessing increased focus and contribution from many a local authority and agency to addressed the shortage in skilled personnel. The UAE ICT Fund for instance, provides funding services to companies, and individuals to develop the innovation and knowledge capital of the UAE ICT sector through applied research, education, and entrepreneurship. Another such example is BCS-ME, the Middle East leg of The Chartered Institute for IT that brings together industry, academia, practitioners and government to share knowledge, promote new thinking and inform the design of new IT curricula to shape the creation of self reliant regional talent pools.

The pace of change of technology alone will drive the need to hone and develop the skills required to innovate and develop the platforms that are imperative for an organisation’s ability to cope with the business conditions of tomorrow. Regional vendors are quickly realising that in order to stay competitive, they need to go beyond aggressive selling and delve into the development of comprehensive and competent local IT tool, so as to be able to support their customers and partners in the long run. It is only a matter of time before one can tell if these efforts are paying off in the Middle East.

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