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Middle East faces IT talent crunch

Countries in the Middle East are adopting the latest technologies at such a rapid rate that the region faces an IT skills shortage

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Demand for skilled IT professionals is increasing rapidly in the Middle East to meet the needs of expanding economies and major IT projects that are being implemented.

And although the region’s IT sector has gradually moved from a nascent to a more mature stage, finding and retaining talent to maintain growth remains one of the key challenges.

A recent survey by UAE-based recruitment specialist Robert Half shows that customer relationship management (CRM), security, mobility, analytics, datacentre and project management skills are most in demand across the Middle East.

Gareth El Mettouri, associate director – Middle East at Robert Half, said that generally across the region, there is an adequate supply of talent in certain roles, but there are skill shortages in some areas, including project management, business intelligence, enterprise and solutions architects, applications, network managers and database developers.

El Mettouri said that as organisations’ IT departments become strategic, so does the profile of their team members – whether through additional training or external recruitment. “There are many IT transformation initiatives under way in the Middle East and the concept of social, mobile, analytics and cloud is driving skills demand and many agendas as companies look to maximise their business offerings,” he said.

While global IT hubs such as Silicon Valley have created environments conducive to nurturing IT talent, innovation in technology is limited in the Middle East.

Mahesh Shahdadpuri, executive director at TASC Outsourcing, said that despite Dubai’s growth, the increasing demands of the technology sector and ongoing investments in infrastructure development have revealed a lack of interest from graduates in pursuing tech careers.

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“The conundrum in the UAE is that there are a large number of accredited universities being set up, but true innovation and research and development is yet to be seen,” said Shahdadpuri.

Mario Foster, group CIO at UAE-based conglomerate Saeed & Mohammed Al Naboodah Group, said skills related to robotic process automation, artificial intelligence, business analytics and blockchain are all in demand in the Middle East. “I also expect a high demand for data scientists due to a shortage in the market for such skillsets,” he said.

According to Foster, the skills in demand are driven largely by the fact that several countries in the Middle East are actively seeking to adopt certain technologies and the government sector is leading this drive, especially in countries such as Saudi Arabia and UAE. “Add in the private sector requirements as well, and the local market has a clear shortage of such IT skills,” he said.

He said Al Naboodah operates in sectors such as construction, commercial, investments and real estate, and has a growing need to take advantage of emerging and advanced technologies.

However, Foster said the company does not need to have such advanced skills within its own IT team, but does need the ability to maintain and fine-tune such technologies. “Given our operations, with more than 20 companies in the group, we build a lot of customisations in-house during new technology implementation,” he said. “We have the right people to learn the basics of these technologies.”

Foster said there is a need for all stakeholders in the Middle East IT industry to make a concerted effort to develop a range of technology skills in the region. “I believe the IT industry should invest more in local talent rather than depending so much on talent from outside the region, with people coming into the region to execute projects and then going back to their home countries when they are done,” he said.

Guruprit Ahuja, CEO and co-founder of cloud service delivery platform RackNap, agreed with Foster on the need for the region’s IT industry to commit to developing skills. He pointed out that what the academics teach in colleges and universities does not directly relate to what is needed by the IT industry.

More collaboration

Ahuja called for more collaboration between the IT industry and educational establishments to train people on, for example,  IT coding principles, software engineering and security and make them industry-ready.

He said many skills in demand at the moment concern the cloud – infrastructure, software and platform as a service, cloud migration and management of cloud infrastructure. “Because the IT spend in the cloud space is increasing vastly compared to traditional IT, this is fuelling demand for skilled resources to manage the delivery of cloud services,” he said.

Ahuja said automation and billing platforms such as RackNap are making it easy for service providers to adopt and sell cloud. “These customers will need skilled resources to manage their back-end operations and this, too, is fuelling demand for skills in the Middle East,” he said.

There has never been a louder call to the region’s political leaders, business and IT executives to develop a larger IT skills pool. In October 2017, the Dubai Future Foundation’s One Million Arab Coders programme was launched by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, prime minister of the UAE.

The initiative seeks to equip young Arabs with the tools to build their future, starting with fluency in coding and programming. The scheme will also provide Arabs with employment opportunities and give them the skills needed to contribute to the development of the digital economy.

So far, a total of 250,000 young Arabs have applied to be the first 100,000 participants in the coders programme.

John McGlinchey, executive vice-president – global certification at CompTIA, said it is critical for education and training in the IT industry to cover the skills needed to meet the real-life challenges faced by businesses.

“We also need to assess that training to ensure it delivers and shows others that those who went through the training meet the standard expected of them,” he said. “You wouldn’t trust a doctor unless you are confident that he or she meets an accepted industry standard, and rightly so. So why not also demand high standards of your IT staff?”

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