Beating the technical skills crunch

In the rapidly-evolving telecoms sector, companies face the challenge of finding and equipping employees with the necessary technical skills.
Pierre van Aswegen
By Pierre van Aswegen, Director and shareholder of Interconnect Systems and a member of the executive management team.
Johannesburg, 06 Dec 2023
Pierre van Aswegen, director, Interconnect Systems.
Pierre van Aswegen, director, Interconnect Systems.

As noted in my first article on this topic, the telecommunications sector faces many hurdles in terms of hiring, as potential candidates with basic technical skills are simply not available in sufficient numbers to meet targets.

Moreover, the significant scarcity of suitably qualified candidates, especially at the supervisory and management level, compounded by employee salary expectations, are two other factors that need to be taken into consideration.

It takes time and money to upskill, appropriately train and mentor staff into management positions – it takes years, not months. Promoting individuals into management positions they are not ready to undertake and doing so due to employment equity pressures is setting them up for failure.

A minimum of four years’ experience is necessary to bring talent through the ranks in any company, particularly in the technically complex telecoms sector – this is quite an investment.

From the perspective of Interconnect Systems, we employ from outside the company, but we would prefer to grow our skills base from within our ranks. But herein lies two further issues/sources of frustration: poaching and job-hopping.

It takes time and money to upskill, appropriately train and mentor staff into management positions – it takes years, not months.

Once the company has made this time and money investment and groomed an individual for a management position, the next thing one can expect is poaching from other organisations seeking similar skills, or the individual job-hops due to unrealistic salary expectations.

The latter is fuelled by the knowledge that parastatals are paying much higher salaries than the private sector, which in turn causes inflated remuneration for certain positions and results in challenging overheads in all South African businesses.

What’s to be done?

Kick off by forming partnerships with external training providers, industry associations, or educational institutions to access specialised technical training programmes. These types of collaborations can help to provide entry to the latest industry trends, technologies and best practices through external training specialists who bring fresh perspectives and expertise, enhancing the effectiveness of programmes.

In the rapidly-evolving telecommunications environment, companies face the challenge of equipping their employees with the necessary technical skills to meet industry demands. In the following, I will outline just some of the ways in which businesses can effectively grow technical skills.

Let’s start with comprehensive training programmes that need to cover a range of technical skills required in the industry, which should include theoretical knowledge and hands-on practical exercises. This is the only way employees will be able to acquire an in-depth understanding of the concepts being delivered and apply them in real-world scenarios.

Training sessions can be conducted through workshops, seminars, online courses and mentorship schemes.

Establishing a dedicated team or department responsible for developing and delivering technical training is crucial. It can consist of subject matter experts who possess in-depth knowledge of the telecoms industry and can create material and conduct training sessions, all while providing ongoing support to employees.

Providing on-the-job training, where employees learn technical skills through hands-on experience and guidance from expert mentors, is crucial. This approach allows staff to apply their knowledge in real-world situations, troubleshoot problems, and develop critical thinking and problem-solving abilities.

It is important to encourage cross-training among employees. This will help broaden their skill sets and foster a multi-disciplinary approach. This enables them to gain exposure to different areas within the telecoms field, such as network infrastructure design, certification tester data analysis, project management, and most importantly, customer service.

Cross-training enhances flexibility, teamwork and overall understanding of the telecommunications ecosystem.

The implementation of mentoring and coaching programmes − where experienced employees guide and support junior staff in developing technical skills − facilitates knowledge transfer, skills development and career growth within the organisation.

Mentors can provide valuable insights, share real-world experiences and help employees navigate challenges in the telecoms environment.

The regular assessment of employees' technical skills through performance evaluations, augmented by constructive feedback, is pivotal to a successful training programme. This process helps identify areas for improvement and tailor training to address gaps in specific skills.

Also, setting objectives that are tied to technical competencies enables candidates to track their progress and strive for continuous improvement.

To effectively teach technical skills in the telecoms sector, businesses need to make various resource investments. The specific requirements may vary depending on the scale of the training programmes and the organisation's capabilities.

Here are some key resource investments that can be considered:

  • Financial investment.
  • Human resources.
  • Training facilities and infrastructure.
  • Technology and software.
  • Training materials and curriculum development.
  • Time and scheduling.
  • Continuous learning support.
  • Evaluation and assessment tools.

By considering these resource investments, businesses can effectively teach technical skills in the telecoms sector and equip their employees with the necessary knowledge and expertise to thrive in the industry.

On a national level, a comprehensive approach that includes revitalising technical education institutions and investing in training programmes is essential. By addressing these issues, companies can pave the way for a more skilled workforce.

In terms of skills development levies, if businesses in the sector were to see results with elevated skills coming into the market, all would be happy to pay these tariffs. But the fact of the matter is that we are just not seeing this.

I believe the future of technical skills development among SA’s youth lies in the collaboration of business and technical schools, colleges and universities.

Businesses can provide students with the opportunity to gain practical experience, while they are completing their studies, ensuring a more well-rounded employee that enters the workforce, which benefits the company, the student and in the long run, the entire telecoms sector.