Tech skills gap endangers digital economy, 4IR progress

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 14 Dec 2021

South African organisations continue to show unfulfilled demand for talent in the tech economy, as the sector struggles to fill thousands of ICT vacancies.

While new careers that didn’t exist in the last decade have been created by the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), the ongoing skills dearth threatens SA’s tech economy.

This is according to professional skills development firm Skills Development Corporation, which released a report on the prevailing hiring trends heading into 2022.

It aims to help provide South African firms with insight and understanding of what jobs are in highest demand, with the country faced with a job crisis, as the unemployment rate continues to climb closer to 40%.

In the first week of December, Statistics SA released unemployment data for July to September 2021, showing the country’s jobless rate rose to 34.9% in the third quarter of 2021, up from 34.4% in the second quarter.

In the third quarter, employment slumped by 660 000 to 14.2 million and the labour force plunged by 842 000 to 21.9 million.

This, according to analysts, is the highest since comparable data began in 2008, and was prompted by the July unrest and stringent COVID-19 lockdown measures.

According to the Skills Development Corporation, the tech sector tops the list with the 25 most in-demand jobs in SA today. The company also reveals the other industries with the most in-demand jobs, weighting them by how “future-proof” the skills are:

  • Engineering and manufacturing
  • Sales and marketing
  • Finance and accounting
  • Procurement and supply chain

The most in-demand jobs in the tech sector are cyber security, cloud computing, artificial intelligence and machine learning, software development, and data science.

Daniel Gibhard, CEO of the Skills Development Corporation, explains: “As the 4IR innovations continue to shape the world, the demand for skilled workers in the tech sector continues to grow. This industry is suited to those who can quickly adapt to a frequently-changing landscape, as well as those who have a desire to never stop learning − both in a formal education setting and in their own capacity.

“For an individual to position themselves to the needs of this industry, they should constantly seek out new ways to gain insight, experience and knowledge in these fields. This can include both formal and informal education, with the goal of boasting a large ‘arsenal’ of skills and competencies, to cater to the broad range of demands the industry has.”

Daniel Gibhard, CEO of the Skills Development Corporation.
Daniel Gibhard, CEO of the Skills Development Corporation.

The report is based on several sources collated by the Skills Development Corporation, including information derived from Sector Education and Training Authority research papers and interviews conducted with industry-leading C-suite executives to gauge what perceived issues plague the industries.

 Skills associated with the current set of emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, internet of things, blockchain, automation, data science and programming, were found to be the scarcest.

“Workers must understand just how important it is to have a desire to learn and self-upskill oneself, to ensure they are equipped to meet the ever-changing trends of their respective industry,” notes Gibhard.

“There are three very clear contributors to the skills gaps in the industries mentioned. The first is a lack of education among job-seekers. The second is a discrepancy between the level of skill/experience that job-seekers possess and fair remuneration. The third factor is not as widely addressed – a lack of opportunities for young employees to gain the experience required to take on more senior roles, like managerial positions.”

Dangerous dearth

According to the 2021 ICT Skills Survey, there remains a chronic shortage of all types of ICT skills required to help South African organisations succeed in the digital economy.

This remains the biggest challenge in the sector this year, posing a huge threat to SA’s 4IR progress.

The survey, carried out by Wits University’s Joburg Centre for Software Engineering, in partnership with the Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa (IITPSA), found that significant digital skills gaps persist, as organisations battle to fill tens of thousands of vacancies.

“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,” said report co-author Adrian Schofield, production consultant at the IITPSA, speaking during the announcement of the report findings in September.

“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.”

According to the 2021 ICT Skills Survey, the top priority skills listed by employers participating in the survey overall, 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 and connectivity.