Desperately seeking skills

Addressing local skills gaps means rethinking our perceptions of education, forming partnerships and deploying the right technologies to best equip your teams.
Joanne Carew
By Joanne Carew, ITWeb Cape-based contributor.
Johannesburg, 23 May 2024
Jessica Hawkey, redAcademy
Jessica Hawkey, redAcademy

South Africa is in a labour market quandary. Many sectors of our economy are stunted by skills shortages, but our unemployment rate – which at the start of 2024 stood at around 32% – is the highest in the world. We have people who need work, but these people don’t have the skills needed to do the job. What’s the cause of this skills disjuncture? It’s complicated.

Let’s look at education. In some cases, the skills being taught aren’t on par with market requirements, says Lindsay Cowan, co-founder and CEO at One Degree. The net effect of this is that when students complete their education journey, they are largely unprepared for what is actually required to succeed in the job market. In cases where the standard of education has been dropped to boost graduation rates, it’s unsurprising that job seekers aren’t competent enough for the position. In line with this, there remains a gap between education and the practical application of skills, which means that employees lack the experience to succeed in critical positions.

“It’s important to know the difference between skills and qualifications. We need to not just produce graduates, but skilled individuals.”

Tshepo Motshegoa, SEACOM

But this doesn’t mean that overhauling our education systems will address our skills scarcity. Stephanie Allais, a professor of education and research chair for Skills Development at the Centre for Researching Education and Labour at the University of the Witwatersrand, says that figuring out what skills we need and then designing our curricula to enable people to do these tasks is a misguided approach. Institutions are not the best or only places for learning skills, she says. While they are the best, and perhaps only, places for learning theory, concepts and practices that are very difficult to learn elsewhere, providing training to do specific tasks through formal education is usually a waste of valuable resources.

Jessica Hawkey, MD of redAcademy, agrees. “The paradigm for skills development needs to shift. Training should be done for employment and not theoretical knowledge transfer. It’s no longer sustainable to focus on theory transfer at the expense of real work readiness,” says Hawkey. Simply having a qualification doesn’t guarantee that you are ready to make a meaningful contribution to the workplace. The skills we teach must extend beyond theory to include things like handling the pressure of working in an office environment, learning how to engage with clients, understanding the ins and out of interacting with your managers, juggling multiple projects/tasks simultaneously and being held accountable for contributions toward business goals. Young people need to start converting their training into hard skill sets by working in the market, dealing with real-life situations, and implementing real-world projects, says Tshepo Motshegoa, CIO at SEACOM. “It’s important to know the difference between skills and qualifications. We need to not just produce graduates, but skilled individuals.”


Skills recycling is, in part, to blame for a lack of improvement in South Africa’s skills shortage across most ICT-related skillsets. This is according to a SAP Africa report, “Africa’s Tech Skills Scarcity Revealed”, from March 2023. When companies recycle ICT skills, skilled professionals hop from one employer to another, with the firm capable of paying the highest salary retaining them for the longest period of time. Rather than participating in a bun fight for tech talent, businesses should invest in skills development initiatives that groom new talent or back skills development programmes that seek to upskill and retain existing members of their teams.

Looking beyond the education/experience and theory/practice conundrum, one cannot overlook the brain drain, which is a stark reality adding to our skills woes. CareerJunction’s employment insights report for December 2023 reveals that the more work experience employees have, the more willing they are to move overseas if the right job opportunity opens up. This means that the highly-skilled and experienced talent pool is shrinking, which drives up demand and makes it more difficult to retain skilled professionals. And if the skills can’t be found, local companies have no choice but to look for talent abroad.

Skills in the AI era

Skills shortages also arise because of how fast technology is evolving, says Hawkey. This reality means that digital skills quickly become outdated, making it difficult to identify what skills are needed to keep up with the demands of the digital economy. For example, the recent boom in AI has created new jobs, such as prompt engineers, who write, refine and optimise the prompts users plug into generative AI systems so that you can get the most accurate, highestquality outputs. Or AI trainers, who teach AI systems to understand user inputs. Here, you’ll need a Bachelor’s degree in data analytics for an entry-level position.

Young in years, but advanced in impact, AI is set to have both positive and negative impacts across different sectors, occupations and skill levels, says Nicol Myburgh, head of the human capital business unit at CRS Technologies. While the demand for certain skills is expected to shift as AI becomes more integrated into everything we do, workers will find that AI tools and systems can augment their work, increasing efficiency and allowing them to focus on the more complex, creative, or interpersonal aspects of their jobs.


The World Economic Forum’s ‘2023 Future of Jobs’ report cites cybersecurity as being one of the top skills the modern enterprise requires. Unfortunately, an enormous dearth of cybersecurity talent means that accessing these highly strategic skills isn’t easy. Around 3.4 million professionals are needed to fill the cybersecurity workforce gap globally, says Fortinet’s 2023 Cybersecurity Skills Gap report.

The shortage of skilled talent is a significant concern for South African businesses, with 26% of CEOs identifying it as one of the potentially most damaging risks their businesses currently faces, according to Gartner’s 2023 CEO and Senior Business Executive Survey.

AI provides a platform to augment and improve roles so that the skills people once needed are no longer as important today, says Kalane Rampai, MD at Microsoft South Africa. For example, when Spar was looking for an effective way of streamlining the workload of its project managers and executive assistants – who rely heavily on Microsoft 365 in their daily tasks – the retailer became an early adopter of Microsoft 365 Copilot, says Rampai. They used Copilot extensively in Word for document creation and summarisation and in Teams to streamline the process of catching up on missed meetings and managing meeting minutes. Copilot enables Spar’s employees to get through their workloads faster. “To this end, 75% of Copilot users at Spar say that the technology helps improve the quality of their work and 85% say that it helps them spend less mental effort on mundane or repetitive tasks.”

While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to addressing the skills gap, there are a number of lessons South Africa can learn from other markets that have successfully implemented skills development initiatives. Germany’s dual studies, or dual apprenticeship system, offers young people the opportunity to learn through a mix of on-the-job training and time spent in a classroom, with the former accounting for around 70% of their time and the latter the remaining 30%. The success of this initiative demands that different parties work together, including the government, industry and educational institutions. The German model has proven collaboration is essential to ensure that training efforts successfully align with the requirements of modern businesses.

“Training should be done for employment and not theoretical knowledge transfer. It’s no longer sustainable to focus on theory transfer at the expense of real work readiness.”

Jessica Hawkey, redAcademy

But, as we know, these requirements change, which is why a culture of continuous learning should be encouraged among existing employees. Lifelong learning initiatives that help employees keep apace with changing business models and technological advancements are so important because they ensure that no individual or business is left behind.


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