By Nane Atshemian
Armenia’s information technology industry, the most advanced in the region, is beginning to experience a shortage of skilled labor that could stall its further growth unless urgent government measures are taken to reform the education system, IT experts warned on Wednesday.
They said that the number and especially the professional level of young people graduating from the IT programs of local universities is increasingly lagging behind the needs of one of the most dynamic sectors of the Armenian economy.
The sector has seen substantial growth over the past decade, creating thousands of well-paid jobs in the unemployment-stricken nation. Foreign and mostly U.S. companies in computer software development and other IT-related activities have been the main driving force behind the growth. At least a dozen of them have branches in Armenia.
The existence of relatively cheap and skilled workforce in country that was once dubbed the Silicon Valley of the Soviet Union has been principal factor behind the foreign investments. But According to the director of the Armenian Enterprise Incubator Foundation (EIF), a World Bank-funded agency promoting the sector’s development, Armenia will risk losing this trump card unless it embarks on a sweeping overhaul of its system of higher education.
“There are now IT companies that are looking for 50 to 100 specialists,” Bagrat Yengibarian told RFE/RL. “There is a great need in specialists. Our task is to create conditions in the university system that will enable companies to hire qualified specialists. We can not make Armenia attractive by saying that the private sector itself should prepare specialists.”
“Big Western firms like Lycos and Synopsis can enter our universities and train their future cadres. But smaller companies interested in Armenia cannot do that,” Yengibarian added.
The main sources of IT-related knowledge in Armenia are the computer science departments of Yerevan State University and the Armenian State Engineering University. The number of applicants seeking to study there has risen dramatically in recent years, with high school graduates attracted by the prospect of finding a job in a sector where the average monthly wage is currently worth $500. Experienced Armenian programmers may well earn $1,000 or more these days.
However, the post-Soviet decline in overall educational standards in Armenia coupled with a lack of government funding for universities has clearly taken its toll on the quality of IT learning in Armenia.
“Our universities are only now beginning to teach modern technology,” said Arman Valesian, chairman of the organizing committee of an annual computer programming contest sponsored by the EIF and other IT associations. “Kids mainly learn it on their own or through private courses. If they could do that in university it would be much easier for the industry to hire staff. But companies now spend at least three months to retrain university graduates [before hiring them].”
The latest programming contest began this week, featuring about 200 participants below the age of 30. Thirty best-performing programmers will be short-listed for a special training course to be taught by specialists from Armenian and foreign IT firms.
“The younger they are, the more flexible is their mind,” Valesian observed. “For example, we have a 16-year-old boy who solved five problems in 75 minutes.”
Analysts say another problem is that despite declaring the sector’s development a top priority of its economic policy, the Armenian government has yet to embark on a radical re-orientation of the education sector toward IT or at least to expand its existing computer science programs. Armenia’s state-run technical colleges, which were primarily designed to serve the now defunct Soviet-era heavy industry, continue to release every year hundreds of mechanical and other non-IT engineers whose chances of finding a job are slim.
Yengibarian, the EIF director, believes that the government should come up with an IT development plan tied to a broader strategy for the country’s economic development. That strategy, he said, should provide answers to the following questions: “In which direction will Armenia move in the next ten years? Are we going to prioritize cheap or qualified labor? What steps are we going to take to ensure that the university system does not lag behind development?”