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‘Chronic ICT skills shortage’ deepens amid skills recycling

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 08 Mar 2023

South African organisations are falling into the continuous trap of recycling ICT skills – an error that is worsening the ICT skills dearth and strangling the country’s digital economy.

This is one of the key findings of software giant SAP Africa’s report, titled “Africa’s Tech Skills Scarcity Revealed”, released during a media briefing this morning at SAP’s Johannesburg offices.

The study, conducted by research firm Vanson Bourne, unravels the challenges and opportunities for African organisations seeking greater fourth industrial revolution (4IR) skills availability. It is based on a survey of enterprise and mid-market companies across Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa.

According to the report, there has been no improvement in SA’s chronic shortage of all types of ICT skills across almost all sectors. In fact, the ICT skills gap continues to widen, hindering the continent's digital transformation efforts, it reveals.

The most in-demand skills are those associated with the current set of emerging technologies, cyber security, data analytics, application development, software developer, project management, digital transformation, cloud integration and change management.

Revealing the findings, Cathy Smith, MD of SAP Africa, said there is an urgent need for organisations to invest in skills development and training programmes, to ensure Africa can capitalise on job creation.

While the contributing factors differ for each region, the key skills gap culprit in SA is the “recycling” of ICT skills, instead of companies investing in skills development initiatives and upskilling employees and youth, she added.

The recycling of ICT skills in this context, she explained, refers to the vicious cycle of firms hiring and rehiring when existing staff leave the company – instead of grooming new talent and investing in skills development programmes that seek to retain workers.

“African organisations still face some difficulties with attracting, retaining and upskilling suitably skilled tech workers. SA’s biggest problem is retaining skilled workers,” said Smith.

“This often results in companies recycling skills – where we see many professionals job-hopping within the same local vendors – and the firm capable of paying the most salary is able to retain the employee. This results in human resources becoming very expensive in SA because of the huge demand, and many ICT professionals start thinking they are the crown jewels.”

This has resulted in a fierce war for skills within the country’s tech sector, which is the worst affected, according to Smith.

The report notes that only 53% of Kenyan organisations expect to experience a skills gap in the next year, compared to 80% of Nigerian companies and 73% of South African firms.

Surveyed South African organisations placed greater emphasis on digital transformation skills, with 70% of South African companies saying these are in-demand skills, compared to only 33% of organisations in Kenya and Nigeria.

Change management skills − deemed essential to successful digital transformation − were not highly prioritised among surveyed companies, revealing an opportunity for smarter investment in specific skills to improve the outcomes of these initiatives. Only 18% of companies cited change management as an in-demand skill.

"Studies have shown that fewer than a third of digital transformation projects succeed, partly due to the fact that only 34% of change management projects are clear successes," added Smith.

"For a continent that is rapidly transforming through the accelerated adoption of digital technologies, ensuring effective change management could greatly improve outcomes and equip organisations with new capabilities to drive growth and innovation."

Cathy Smith, MD of SAP Africa.
Cathy Smith, MD of SAP Africa.

More than half of the world's population growth between now and 2050 will take place in Africa, where 1.3 billion people are expected to be born by mid-century.

With the correct investment in skills development, Africa's economy could transition away from its reliance on natural resources, to build the world's future tech workforce, bringing untold economic and social benefit to the continent and its citizens, noted Smith.

The report further found the skills shortage crisis has negative consequences for the continent's 4IR efforts, hampering companies’ digital transformation initiatives.

Four in five organisations surveyed reported some negative effect from a lack of tech skills, with 41% saying employees are leaving due to the pressures they experience as a result of under-staffing. Other consequences include not being able to meet clients’ needs (reported by 46%), reduced capacity for innovation (53%) and losing customers to competitors (60%).

More than two-thirds (69%) of all surveyed organisations expect to experience a tech skill-related challenge in 2023.

According to the data, the limited ability to attract skilled new recruits is the top skills challenge for African organisations.

However, organisations are taking steps to ensure they have access to the correct tech skills, with 41% saying upskilling of existing employees would be a top priority in 2023 and 40% saying the same about reskilling employees.

"Companies are also adopting technology tools and flexible work practices to ensure they can attract, retain and mobilise the correct mix of tech skills," asserted Smith.

"Seven in 10 organisations currently use a human capital management or employee experience tool, while nearly half (45%) of companies were open to remote work, although most want employees to be in the office at least some of the time.

“This new workplace dynamic will require leaders to co-create new models for work, with constant collaboration with employees to ensure alignment with company objectives and culture."