More SA firms plug ICT skills gap with overseas recruits

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 06 Oct 2022

The number of South African organisations reporting they are recruiting overseas ICT skills has increased dramatically over the past year, as thesignificant digital skills gaps persists locally.

This is one of the key findings of the 2022 JCSE-IITPSA ICT Skills Survey. The 12th edition is carried out by Wits University’s Joburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE), in partnership with the Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa (IITPSA), with the support of the Information Technology Association (ITA).

The results are based on an online survey of ICT professionals and South African employers, combined with data provided by the Sector Education and Training Authority (SETA). The number of survey participants was not disclosed.

The number of local employers reporting they are recruiting ICT skills internationally has increased from 38% in the 2021 report, to over 50% in the latest survey .

Unpacking the research findings this morning at the Wits University campus in Braamfontein, the study’s authors − Adrian Schofield, production consultant at the IITPSA, and professor Barry Dwolatzky, director of the JCSE − described the growing trend to recruit foreign skills as “disturbing, given the continuing high levels of unemployment in South Africa”.

Professor Barry Dwolatzky, director of the JCSE.
Professor Barry Dwolatzky, director of the JCSE.

This, as local enterprises said it had become harder to recruit talent locally, as increased pressure on business margins resulted in employers being less willing to wait for graduates to ‘get up to speed’.

Employers recruiting skills overseas say critical skills visas (CSVs) are growing in importance, and changes to the critical skills list and critical skills visa criteria have impacted many, with 25% saying the list, as amended in 2022, has made it harder to obtain the skills they need.

According to the study, many holders of CSVs under the 2014 criteria will now not be able to renew or extend their visas.

“Critical skills visas are growing in importance in drawing new recruits and employers choosing to recruit overseas. Given South Africa’s high rate of unemployment, it would be worth studying whether these visas are utilised for skills transfer to local resources, or merely used to fill skills gaps for as long as possible,” noted Dwolatzky.

According to talent marketplace OfferZen’s 2022 State of the Developer Nation report, SA is pitted against multinational corporations, as the growing digital skills dearth leads to a fierce fight for highly-skilled local software developers.

According to the report, foreign skills markets have also become more attractive for local ICT practitioners, with almost 30% of respondents already working, or planning to work overseas remotely, and more than 50% saying they are considering doing so.

The local ICT skills are further eroded by international demand for skills, as more local professionals seek opportunities abroad, added Dwolatzky.

“Although firm statistics are not readily available, we do know that many highly-qualified and experienced ICT practitioners are taking their skills overseas, to more stable social environments, to more lucrative economies and to better futures for their families.

“This represents a massive drain on our education and training resources, as the return on our investment in these practitioners is gained by the foreign territory,” explainedDwolatzky.

According to the report, the media, information and communication technologies (MICT) sector now comprises 32 985 employers across five sub-sectors, representing a 7% decrease from 35 569 in the previous financial year, with the number of employees increasing to 228 990.

However, more than half of ICT practitioners work in non-MICT sectors, including retail, financial, services, public sector, manufacturing, mining and health, it says.

Top skills in demand

The top five occupations reported by the SETA with hard-to-fill vacancies in the MICT sector are software developer (1 435 vacancies), computer network and systems engineer (1 070), ICT systems analyst (1 036), ICT security specialist (270) and developer programmer (252).

According to Schofield, these vacancy numbers are lower than last year, indicative of “a severe slowing of growth in the sector”.

“The demand for skills generally, and for ICT skills in particular, is subject to a wide range of influences. These include the depressed state of the economy, uncertain political stability, fallout from exposure to crime and corruption, and the introduction of new and improved technologies.”

The key drivers of change influencing skills demand and supply across the MICT sector in future include artificial intelligence (AI), cloud computing, big data analytics, 5G and internet of things.

In other sectoral SETAs, the study authors found growing demand for 4IR skills, particularly in areas such as data analytics, AI and machine learning, along with developer programmers and cyber security specialists.

The survey further found the average South African ICT practitioner continues to perform multiple task-sets, with only a few identifying their role as “specialist” in nature.

A hundred percent of respondents believe they need to keep upskilling themselves to stay relevant in a changing environment, through a combination of on-site learning, e-learning/podcasts and knowledge-sharing. Around 70% seek ‘on the job experience or mentoring’, and almost half want ‘proof of learning’ in the form of a certificate, diploma or degree.

However, Schofield said: “The pressure of work makes less time available for continuing academic studies, even on a part-time basis.”