'New-collar' workforce could plug SA's tech skills gap

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 11 Mar 2024
South African workers are moving from a blue-collar to new-collar workforce.
South African workers are moving from a blue-collar to new-collar workforce.

South Africa is seeing an increase in the number of people pursuing and taking up ‘new-collar’ jobs, which require advanced tech and digital skills, but not necessarily four-year university degrees.

This is according to research firm Flux Trends, which notes SA is witnessing a steady rise in the new-collar workforce – which consists of individuals who have acquired the skills to work in technology jobs through non-traditional educational paths, such as community colleges and technical schools.

The new-collar workers occupy the middle ground between white- and blue-collar workers – with many looking to upgrade from blue-collar work to earn higher salaries with better working hours, it says.

New-collar workers include cloud computing technicians, cyber security analysts,wind turbine technicians, hardware technicians, software testers, auto electrical specialist, digital marketer and data analysis.

Most new-collar jobs fall into four categories: healthcare, engineering, technology and software development.

Faeeza Khan, head of research at Flux Trends, notes policymakers in countries with high rates of unemployment should invest in and encourage the creation of short courses for new-collar workers.

Businesses should also develop in-house training and up-skilling programmes to help existing employees and job applicants acquire the skills needed for new-collar jobs, she notes.

“We have a staggeringly high unemployment rate, more so for the youth. Youth are finding that a degree does not guarantee them a job,” comments Khan.

“They are seeking out on-demand skills that are offered through short courses. These are also significantly more affordable and of shorter duration than universities. The majority of our youth don't have the time or money for university, but are also not keen on blue-collar work.”

Young people are realising academic qualifications no longer ensure a satisfactory job, and white-collar jobs don’t look as attractive as they once appeared to the previous generation, adds Flux Trends.

As the world of work changes rapidly, influenced by the digital economy, the pipeline of new-collar skills may play an important role in plugging the IT skills gap, as South African organisations grapple with the tech skills crisis.

According to Harvard Business Review, the new-collar workforce is the answer for many companies across the globe that are struggling to fill key tech roles.

“Unnecessary degree requirements don’t just hurt workers. They also deprive companies of talent, while yielding little to no benefit. Companies that use the bachelor’s degree as a filter when filling positions that don’t require it are hiring inefficiently. They’re also overlooking workers they desperately need, particularly in growing fields such as tech,” says Harvard Business Review.

The rise of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence has spurred higher demand in SA for AI specialists and professionals over the past 12 months, according to online jobs portal Pnet’s monthly Job Market Trends report, released last week.

Faeeza Khan, head of research at Flux Trends.
Faeeza Khan, head of research at Flux Trends.

According to Flux Trends, micro-credentials, which are courses that are shorter and less expensive than university degrees, are growing in popularity and enabling the rise of new-collar workers in SA.

The private sector should work with providers of short courses to tailor them to what skills their business needs, says Khan.

“These programmes can include technical training, digital literacy and industry-specific certifications. Businesses can partner with community colleges, vocational schools and other educational institutions to design curricula that align with the skills required for new-collar jobs.

“Offering internships and co-op programmes is another option to help students gain practical experience,” she adds.

According to Flux Trends, policy-makers have an important role to play in encouraging schools and parents to advise students on this career path and emphasise that a university degree does not guarantee employment.

Further, companies need to focus on hiring candidates based on their skills and competencies, rather than their formal education.

“Companies can rely on skills assessments, portfolio reviews and practical tests during the hiring process to identify the most qualified candidates. Review and revise job descriptions to ensure they do not inadvertently discourage potential candidates with non-traditional educational backgrounds from applying,” concludes Khan.