Douglas Cohen (South Africa) - The IT Skills Gap is Everyone's Business (Part 1)

In part one of his two part blog, Douglas Cohen discusses the problem of the IT skills gap in South Africa and what is contributing to this. Part two will discuss the changes that can be made to help.

Globally, cities and towns are growing, both in size and influence (the world is becoming more urban – see my previous blog for IDG Connect) and there is greater devolution of functions to lower levels of government. Technological developments and major programmes are therefore not only modernizing and re-inventing the business world as well as how government operates.  These dynamics continue to place technical skill sets in demand. It makes sense, especially if one considers the great need for technology to be the differentiator in both the workplace and in government, especially with the growing emphasis on the demand for improved service delivery.

Ironically, the greater government sees ICT as a mechanism to enhance and fast track service delivery, the greater the realization will be that technology on its own cannot achieve anything. Importantly, it is also having the right people and well-defined processes that together will provide services that the public can have confidence in.

There is a shortage of ICT skills in the South African market. That is a fact. There is however a difference of opinion on the scale of shortage. The National Department of Labour last issued a National Master Scarce Skills list in April 2008, indicating the ICT sector needed a minimum of 37,565 IT professionals to ensure adequate skills in this sector. However, the results of a more recent ICT survey, conducted by IT Web and the Joburg Centre for Software has found the department underestimated, by almost half, how many ICT skills are needed in SA. The suggestion therefore is that the 'real' skills shortage can be as high as 70,000 practitioners - more than 25% of the current workforce.

What are the more visible implications of this skills gap?  Besides forcing companies to either pay higher and unrealistic salaries or to rely on people who have less experience than required it also encourages job-hopping among skilled practitioners. South Africa’s businesses have also followed the global trend and have begun to import skills from countries such as India, which may solve an immediate crisis, but can add to the cost and complexity of doing business.

The crisis of greater concern is rather the gap in the pool of younger, qualified, and experienced people. In fact, the number of students who pass mathematics and science sufficiently well to get into university is too low, resulting in universities not being able to take students in to do computer science, electronics and engineering degrees and ultimately resulting in not enough ICT professionals joining the industry in the next five years.

That said, while the industry has acknowledged that they do have a role to play in making ICT careers more attractive to young people, there lies a further disconnect between academia and business -  and that, on the one hand, is the eternal criticism of the university graduates who are emerging into the job market that are lacking key skills needed by companies. However, the other argument, spurred by the fact that sectors of ICT specialisation continue to fragment, diminishes the strength or quality of ICT qualifications.

Where does this ICT skills shortage or disconnect all leave National, Provincial and Local Governments? Unfortunately the reality is with a staff made up of under-qualified professionals with watered-down skills that are not geared for real-life ICT crises and challenges. This negatively affects the optimal running of ICT departments and delivery of government ICT projects.  It is clear that Local Government, in particular, will struggle to attract and retain ICT skills.

The smaller and more rural Municipalities (and the residents who live in them) are possibly most impacted by these challenges - their efforts alone cannot create a big enough funnel to support the demand for more ICT skills in their local markets. For example Gauteng Province, with three large cities, is the hub, with over 65% of the country’s ICT industry and over 50% of the financial services firms. Therefore based on demand and supply, securing the right type of ICT skills at a more competitive rate is far easier in Gauteng and possibly other in other large cities than in more remote and rural areas.

So where can we start to look beyond the challenges for practical, but also sustainable solutions to attract and retain IT skills, especially at the municipal level? I'll tackle that in part two of this blog - now available to read here.

By Douglas Cohen, Specialist in economic development and ICT from the South African Local Government Association (SALGA).