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Struggle to fill thousands of ICT vacancies persists in SA

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 29 Sept 2021
Professor Barry Dwolatzky (left), director of the JCSE at Wits University, and Adrian Schofield, production consultant at IITPSA.
Professor Barry Dwolatzky (left), director of the JCSE at Wits University, and Adrian Schofield, production consultant at IITPSA.

The South African ICT sector appears to have adapted to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns. However, significant digital skills gaps persist, as organisations battle to fill tens of thousands of vacancies.

This emerged in the 2021 ICT Skills Survey carried out by Wits University’s Joburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE), in partnership with the Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa (IITPSA).

The survey, the 11th since 2008 and the first since the start of the pandemic, surveyed over 200 ICT professionals on what impact the pandemic and lockdown have had on working conditions and ICT skills supply and demand within their organisations.

According to the survey, almost 60% of employer respondents felt the pandemic had not affected skills availability, and overall respondent sentiment about the impact of work from home arrangements was positive.

Employees have adapted to working from home, and many companies report an improvement in productivity, saying this model would likely remain in place in the long-term. 

It also found there remains a chronic shortage of all types of ICT skills required to help local organisations succeed in the digital economy. 

Report co-author Adrian Schofield, production consultant at the IITPSA, released the report findings during a webinar yesterday, saying: “The surprising finding is that there are no surprising findings! 

“The survey shows the ICT industry has coped well in these disruptive times without needing to change much or re-invent itself. ICT companies and ICT professionals have coped well with new working conditions. They have not needed to scurry around hunting for new technologies and skill sets. Everything required for the ‘new normal’ was already in place.” 

Despite government’s much-vaunted focus on the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), the survey highlighted that much work must still be done before organisations across the board can harness the true benefits of digital transformation and 4IR technologies. 

Professor Barry Dwolatzky, director of the JCSE and report co-author, said: “If there’s any profession that should lend itself well to making digital transformation of the workplace possible and dealing with it comfortably, it is the ICT community. 

“In introducing the Skills Survey report, we looked critically at the notion of the 4IR. We asked whether it is an evolution on the ongoing timeline of digital transformation, or whether it was indeed a revolution. We concluded that it was, in fact, a bit of both. 

“Contemplating the digital future and its implications on the world of work, policymakers, parents and young people have started thinking deeply about ‘jobs of the future’ and the skills that will be required to fill these jobs.” 

Most in-demand IT skills

Responding to questions on whether there is still a digital skills shortage in SA, Schofield said: “Yes, there is and it’s ongoing. From the practitioners’ perspective, the skills gaps are real, measured in thousands locally and millions globally. We are still not seeing sufficient numbers coming through the skills pipeline.

“The future is still about the foundations: education, getting more people comfortable with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects, ensuring people have the aptitude for STEM and ICT subjects, ensuring people gain practical experience, and we must approach the question of gender equality in the sector much more robustly.”

Schofield provided a presentation based on a report in the latest MICT SETA Sector Skills Plan, detailing the top occupations with hard to fill vacancies in the MICT sector as: software developers, computer network technicians, developer programmers, ICT communications assistants, computer network and systems engineers, ICT security specialists, ICT systems analysts and web technicians.

The same report indicated the programming languages most in demand were: NET, C#, C++, Java and VB, with a decline in demand for people to maintain legacy systems, such as COBOL developers.

The report noted that while the MICT sector includes over 30 000 companies in SA, more than half of ICT practitioners work in other non-MICT sectors.

According to the report, the top occupations with hard to fill vacancies in the MICT sector (and the quantity needed) were:

  • Software developer (2 434 vacancies)
  • Computer network technician (1 948)
  • Developer programmer (823)
  • ICT communications assistant (755)
  • Computer network and systems engineer(731)
  • ICT security specialist (713)
  • ICT systems analyst (676)
  • Web technician (514)
  • Systems administrator (405)
  • Programmer analyst (397)
  • Management consultant (business analyst)(359)
  • Advertising specialist (224)
  • Telecommunications network engineer(164)
  • Database designer and administrator(114)

Referencing the increase in vacancies since the 2019 ICT Skills Survey, Schofield highlighted the challenge of relating an occupation to the core skills required to carry out the required tasks.

He emphasised the comparison with the top priority skills listed by employers participating in the survey overall, which were:

  • Information security / cyber security
  • Big data design / analytics
  • DevOps
  • Artificial intelligence / machine learning
  • Application development
  • Data management
  • Test automation / performance testing
  • Internet of things
  • Connectivity

Schofield noted that continuing professional development would remain critical and employers consistently need to reskill and upskill employees, and vendors must identify competencies that will be replaced so they can also show where practitioners can be moved to new areas.