Gap? What gap? We’ve been hearing about the “skills gap” for nearly 20 years in South Africa’s Information & Communications Technologies (ICT) sector. Do we actually know the dimensions of this gap and have we made any significant progress towards closing it?
There is a serious “information gap”, thanks to the extraordinarily fragmented approach that South Africa takes towards the mythical ICT sector. I say mythical because many politicians, bureaucrats and other decision-makers talk about it as though it is a clearly-defined part of the economy, like mining, automotive or banking. In reality, the sector is at best a loosely connected collection of businesses and other enterprises ranging from multinational companies and state-owned monoliths to one-person entrepreneurs working with bus fare and a laptop. Given that scope, it is little wonder that there is no principal industry association gathering data from members on their skills needs.
Government also takes a multi-pronged approach to “ICT”, with the departments of communications, trade & industry, public enterprises, public service & administration and higher education & training (to mention but a few) all having a finger in the pie of ICT sector development. This does nothing to promote the coordination of the sector’s representatives, who tend to adopt the silo approach and to offer “cherry-picked” opinions to the friendliest listener, without regard for the big picture.
Even the (take a deep breath) Media, Advertising, Information and Communication Technologies Sector Education & Training Authority (MICT SETA) sees only half of the picture. As stated in the JCSE-ITWeb Annual ICT Skills Survey, the companies reporting (and hopefully paying levies) to MICT SETA are those who decided they are in the sector. Thousands of ICT practitioners are employed in enterprises in other sectors, both public and private. Do the relevant SETAs correctly classify and analyze the relevant skills needs?
What we think we know is there are approximately 200,000 practitioners (people with some skills involved in designing, developing, implementing, managing and supporting ICTs) in South Africa’s various sectors and there are between 20,000 and 30,000 “vacancies”. Some positions remain vacant because there are no suitably qualified or experienced candidates, some remain vacant because there is no budget, and some remain vacant because available candidates are too old, too white or too male.
What we do know is that the country needs more (many more) ICT practitioners. Ignoring the previous Minister of Communications’ unrealistic promise to create one million ICT jobs in the next few years, South Africa should have double the current number of practitioners. This would begin to restore our competitiveness, reduce the negative balance of payments for technology and improve productivity across all sectors of the economy. Better government ICT systems would reduce waste and corruption and improve service delivery.
Can we close the gap? “Yes, we can!” We have to ramp up the use of ICTs in schools, train an army of teachers to be passionate about the technology and get the leaders of industry, government and academia to embrace each other in long term commitment, instead of the patchy, tentative, short term engagements that typify progress to date. It’s not about whether we have enough Java programmers or systems architects or PC technicians. It’s about understanding the ICTs are the tools that enable all of us to live in the globalized 21st Century. Without those tools being available and affordable, we will starve.
By Adrian Schofield, Manager, Applied Research Uni, Joburg Centre for Software Engineering
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