Skills dearth a chokehold on SA’s ‘vibrant’ ICT sector

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 18 Aug 2022

Although South Africa has a vibrant ICT sector, the skills gap and demand for ICT talent continue to be inhibiting factors to its growth and that of the economy.

This is one of the key findings of the South Africa ICT Talent Development White Paper, which highlights the urgent need for the country to address its ICT skills gap.

The white paper was released by Huawei, in collaboration with its research partner Ernst & Young (EY). The findings were revealed yesterday at Huawei SA’s offices in Johannesburg.

The white paper was informed by interviews conducted in November 2021 with stakeholders from government, educational institutions and organisations in the ICT sector, as well as desktop research, according to EY.

Unpacking the paper’s findings, Angelika Goliger, chief economist and Sub-Saharan Africa representative for EY’s Geostrategic Business Group, said despite the country facing severe economic distress, the ICT sector has shown significant resilience as one of the best-performing sectors in the country, and globally.

“While this was largely driven by the pandemic and a need to move business, education and other areas of life online, ICT has become an indelible part of every industry in the country, from agriculture, to mining and financial services.

“But, SA’s ICT sector and its potential for economic growth has a ceiling on it because of the lack of ICT skills – you cannot have a vibrant ICT sector without the requisite skills.”

According to the white paper, there are currently around 20 000 ICT companies in SA. Cumulatively, they contribute 8% to the country’s GDP. Furthermore, the sector has achieved consistent growth despite the country’s economic challenges and is set to maintain a growth trajectory through to 2025.

Even though there has been positive growth in technological accessibility and development, the paper states ICT skills have become a major barrier to technological adoption. It further shows the already wide ICT skills gap has been broadened by the loss of key ICT talent to emigration.

Unless the country closes its ICT skills gap, that growth is in danger of being derailed, the white paper warns.

The ICT skills limitations noted in the Huawei and EY white paper mirror insights determined by the 2021 ICT Skills Survey.

The survey revealed significant digital skills gaps persist in SA, with firms in the ICT sector continuing to battle to fill tens of thousands of vacancies.

It noted the top occupations with hard-to-fill vacancies in the ICT sector were software developer, computer network technician, developer programmer, ICT communications assistant, computer network and systems engineer, and ICT security specialist.

EY chief economist Angelika Goliger and Kian Chen, deputy CEO of Huawei SA.
EY chief economist Angelika Goliger and Kian Chen, deputy CEO of Huawei SA.

Kian Chen, deputy CEO of Huawei SA, noted ICT continues to enable industries in the developing digital economy and this will continue for many more years.

“Businesses require qualified personnel to meet the growing demand of the ICT industry. In this regard, we must create a workforce that’s able to meet current and future needs.

“In Africa and South Africa, Huawei sees a multi-layered demand for ICT talent.”

Chen states Huawei proposes a four-level approach to address some of the challenges, namely: empower ICT policy-makers to better utilise digital tools; reskill and upskill the ICT workforce for current and future innovations; build a pool of young digital talent for long-term socio-economic development; and promote digital awareness among citizens to bring about a knowledge-based society.

Beyond the benefits for the ICT sector, ICT is an indelible part of all industries in the country, ranging from agriculture, mining and financial services, according to Goliger.

“As an economist, one of the standard equations you will learn is that economic growth is a function of capital and labour. Capital and labour have intrinsic limits, but the additional factor that comes in as a multiplier is technology because it can be unlimited and can boost the existing labour and capital dynamic.

“This is why ICT and technology are so critical to an economy’s development.”

Collaborative interventions

In order to foster and retain ICT talent, the white paper advises government, technology companies and the education sector to collaborate across the full breadth of the ICT ecosystem.

As a representative of government, Buti Manamela, deputy minister of higher education, science and innovation, acknowledged more needs to be done when it comes to nurturing ICT talent and driving greater cooperation between the state, academia and other stakeholders in ICT talent development.

“We must be deliberate in addressing the challenges of digital transformation, and our efforts should be aimed at using the available knowledge and digital infrastructure to ensure we mitigate, rather than exacerbate, existing digital inequities, ” states Manamela.

“But, the reality is that government cannot do it on its own. We need increased partnerships and collaboration with the private sector, not only in terms of resources, but also policy interventions that will go a long way in helping to address youth unemployment and contribute to the development of scarce and future skills.”

Chen concludes: “The gaps and demands of ICT talent supply have been recognised by all stakeholders but now we need to take action.

“I would like to use this opportunity to call for closer collaboration between government, academia and the ICT industry to explore the possibility of more ICT talent development programmes so that more young people gain exposure to technology and are empowered to innovate using new technologies and platforms.”