Companies and governments need to do more to tap the Middle East’s human resources and raise levels of IT awareness, according to HumanSoft’s CEO Fahad Alothman. Sarah Gain puts the region’s IT training in the spotlight.

Alothman: By investing in the training of the young, companies are investing in the GCC as well as their business. Fahad Alothman, the founder, chairman and CEO of HumanSoft sees the retention of qualified staff as one of the biggest problems facing enterprises in the region today. Alothman, who heads one of the region’s leading e-learning providers, says the transient nature of the imported workforce, especially in areas such as Dubai, results in significant problems with business continuity and employee commitment. In fact, the most recent government figures show that UAE nationals hold fewer than 15% of the country’s jobs. Alothman believes that the region needs to invest in sectors that create jobs and opportunities for the local population in order to overcome these problems. “In this part of the world, some 70% of the population is under the age of 21. This is a fantastic resource that needs to be tapped,” Alothman says. “By investing in the training of this young, local population, companies are investing in people that are here to stay. For this reason the investment becomes much safer — it becomes an investment in the future of the GCC region’s economy, as well as in the future of their business,” he points out. Alothman sees dangers inherent in the rapid growth of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region’s IT market. IDC says the MENA region will grow from US$6.9 billion in 2003 to around US$13.4 billion by 2008. “Businesses in this region are suffering from over-capitalisation. They actually have too much money at their disposal in many cases. This doesn’t sound like it should present a problem, but this money is not all being spent as effectively as it might.” Alothman argues that with ever more complex technology systems being deployed by businesses of all types, training in information and communications technology (ICT) is vital to business success. He is also keen to raise awareness among C-level management at enterprises throughout the Middle East of the long-term benefits that education and training can bring not only to an individual company’s operations, but also to the economy of the region as a whole. By developing local human resources Alothman argues that the region will become more self-sufficient: “Today’s students could become the IT professionals of the future,” he says. There are signs that the region’s universities have been quick to recognise that graduates of all disciplines need good IT skills. The Gulf University of Science and Technology (GUST), for example, is making a serious commitment to ensure the ICT literacy of the workforce of the future. “[IT training] is important education for an increasingly electronic era,” says Hady Abou Onk, project director for GUST’s e-learning project. “It is essential that employees know how to get the best from technology solutions in order for all other IT investments to be leveraged successfully,” he adds. While Abu Onk believes that enterprises are gradually coming to realise that a higher level of spending on technology necessitates a proportionally higher spending on training, HumanSoft’s Alothman is adamant that more of companies’ budgets needs to be spent educating staff throughout the company. “What we are trying to do is channel the capital that is available in this region into meaningful projects that help IT and HR development in businesses throughout the Middle East,” he says. “Those organisations that do not adopt a mindset in which training in such skills is considered essential will find business more difficult in the future.” Although the corporate ICT training market in the Middle East may appear to be in its infancy, especially when compared to Western Europe or the US, IDC is confident that the region will soon catch up. As understanding grows about how expert training can significantly contribute to an organisation’s bottom line, companies will begin to accept and adopt training, according to the research firm. In fact, according to IDC’s consulting manager for IT in Central Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Torben Pedersen, progress is already being made. “IT training and education is one of the key growth areas in the UAE and we are seeing a lot of basic training for government departments. At the same time, big organisations are realising that as they become more dependent on IT in their infrastructures they need to have experts that can handle the mission-critical parts,” he reports. The value of certifications such as the International Computer Driving Licence (ICDL) is also becoming more recognised by the region’s employers and employees, according to Jamil Ezzo, director general of the ICDL GCC Foundation. He says the qualification has been shown to increase the productivity of PC-using employees, enabling better returns from investments in IT. Ezzo believes the ICDL core certification is the cornerstone of IT training. He says the certification is becoming the standard for IT literacy in the GCC region and beyond. “By increasing the level of an individual’s essential IT skills, we boost their confidence in computer use. We aim to promote computer literacy for everyone and ensure all computer users understand the best practices and advantages of using a PC,” Ezzo explains. “The employees’ improved skills with IT mean greater productivity and better quality of staff output for companies as the workers are able to make better use of IT resources,” he adds. The positive impact of widespread IT literacy goes much further, however, delivering benefits not just to companies’ bottom lines but to society as a whole. By contributing to the development of a highly skilled workforce, IT training is unlocking the door to the information age for all the community. “The speed with which we in the region, and on a global scale, are heading towards an entirely e-work environment and e-society means the need for IT skills will never diminish. IT training allows everyone to be an e-citizen.”