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IT staff recruitment poses major challenge in UAE and wider region

Organisations in the Middle East must create competitive IT recruitment strategies if they are to attract the right people

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Organisations in the UAE face a challenge to attract and retain top-quality CIOs and other key IT staff as the region seeks to tackle a technology skills gap.

As the UAE pushes ahead with its digitisation agenda, the ability to attract and retain IT talent is critical for local enterprises – and salary levels are no longer the be-all and end-all for IT professionals.

The Middle East as a whole is suffering a shortage of IT professionals with the right skills and experience. For example, figures from Cisco show that the Middle East was short of 48,000 skilled networking staff in 2012, and that number had grown to over 100,000 by 2015. 

“This gap is a direct result of the positive news that the UAE is embarking on a period of intense digitisation,” said Mike Weston, vice-president at Cisco in the Middle East. “But the flipside of this is that the country faces a shortage in the number of skilled IT workers required to turn these digital dreams into reality.”

However, the UAE has put itself in a good position by creating a culturally tolerant business environment designed to attract a growing number of overseas workers, said Weston. The country also maintains the advantage of acting as a hub for the broader Middle East region, with many multinational IT organisations using it as their regional headquarters, he added.

“This dynamic means that skills, particularly advanced technical skills, are more readily available than in some other Middle Eastern countries,” he said. “The UAE is also one of the more mature in terms of technology adoption in the region, which is one of the reasons for the high growth in demand for emerging technology solutions.”

But as the UAE continues to drive its digitisation and economic diversification efforts, it is experiencing a particularly acute skills gap with new IT positions. According to recruitment firm Robert Half UAE, professionals with skills in IT security, virtualisation, mobility, ITIL and Cobit, the internet of things (IoT) and convergent technologies are currently in great demand and will continue to be sought after for the next few years.

Gareth El Mettouri, associate director at Robert Half UAE, said other key technology positions to fill included enterprise resource planning (ERP) application and functional experts, project managers, business partners and IT security managers.

“The technology sector within the UAE is growing rapidly as firms update their systems and adopt emerging technology to compete more effectively on a global scale,” he said. “Firms are seeking professionals who not only have technical expertise to execute these projects, but also have a collaborative nature and cultural fit.”

El Mettouri added that the local technology sector was progressing to meet international best practice standards in cyber security, cloud integration and business transformation.

“As multinational corporations in the region review their operational standards on a global level, the implications are having an effect within the region,” he said. “These businesses are eager to hire the specialist talent within Dubai to drive these changes.”

Nelly Boustany, regional head of human resources at SAP, agreed that technology was changing rapidly, and senior executives in the UAE needed to drive organisation-wide skills development to bridge the talent gap.

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“With 100 million young people entering the Middle East and North Africa workforce by 2020, more than half of UAE organisations (54%) said millennials are impacting workforce strategies,” she said. “It is vital for UAE organisations to develop a talent pipeline starting from university, with key differentiators for millennials including a good work-life balance.”

El Mettouri agreed that pay was not the only factor in retaining talented tech staff. “For organisations looking to attract and retain key technology experts, they not only need to offer remuneration packages that are competitive on a local and international scale, but they also need to review their job offers for work-life balance and be able to provide training and development opportunities that will support the individual’s career progression plans,” he said.

David Martinez de Lecea, principal at strategy consultancy Roland Berger, said most IT professionals were looking for opportunities to work with new and promising technologies, rather than old systems and frameworks. Specifically, the importance of artificial intelligence (AI) for most industries is making companies with access to large data pools attractive workplaces for AI specialists, he said.

“In the short term, the biggest barrier to hiring and developing IT skills is the high administrative costs associated with employment, particularly if sourcing from abroad,” he said. “In the long run, the development of home-grown talent in universities of technology and specialist centres is the best way to ensure the availability of a vibrant IT labour force.”

The skills gap, particularly in the ICT field, continues to be a top government priority in the Gulf region. To address the skills shortage, regional governments are deploying policy and training programmes to help solve what Cisco calls “the world’s fastest-growing gap in networking professionals”.

Cisco’s Weston said specific programmes and targeted policies were needed to expand the total pool of qualified IT staff in the region. “More effort is particularly needed to expand networking talent by increasing the number of new networking employees (new graduates), encouraging and enabling mid-career professionals to transition to ICT and networking and increasing the country’s total talent by encouraging immigration,” he said.

Saeed Agha, general manager – Middle East at Palo Alto Networks, said competition for scarce IT talent was a global challenge, “particularly so with talented cyber security resources that we come across when working with our customers and partners in the UAE”.

Agha said common practices such as creating a trusting environment, acknowledging top performers, and clear, transparent communication were essential for organisations to compete in the UAE talent market.

He said IT staff retention could be improved by “offering a challenging work environment that matters and creating a sense of purpose for your employees, ensuring they feel connected to the business and its mission”, adding: “It is also important to provide growth opportunities and flexibility for changing roles and focus domains for your IT employees.”

According to Computer Weekly research, more than half of organisations in the Middle East plan to reduce the amount of money they spend on IT staff in 2017, despite the skills gap. While only 17% of IT decision-makers surveyed by Computer Weekly/TechTarget expect overall IT budgets to be lower in 2017 than in 2016, 53% expect a drop in budgets allocated to IT staff.

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