Transforming the talent pipeline in IT

It is necessary for all local companies to champion diversity, equity and inclusion in South Africa’s tech sector as a matter of urgency.
Rennie Naidoo
By Rennie Naidoo, Professor in Information Systems (IS) at the Wits School of Business Sciences.
Johannesburg, 27 Mar 2024
Rennie Naidoo, professor in Information Systems at the Wits School of Business Sciences.
Rennie Naidoo, professor in Information Systems at the Wits School of Business Sciences.

The South African IT sector’s transformation hinges on tackling the multiple and complex challenges of diversity, equity, inclusion (DEI) and skill shortages.

The brain drain and semigration, compounded by global influences on local markets and the transformative impact of recent technology changes facilitating remote work, have created an urgent need for talent development and workforce diversification within SA's tech industry.

DEI are foundational principles that can guide how the tech industry understands and values human differences in making this transition. Diversity acknowledges the wide array of human characteristics and backgrounds, including culture, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual identity, disability, neurodiversity, and more, recognising that each individual contributes unique perspectives and competencies.

For example, the latest World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report highlights that women are significantly underrepresented in roles related to AI, constituting only 30% of AI professionals.

Diversity, equity and inclusion should be a top strategic priority, not just a tick box exercise to satisfy compliance requirements.

Meanwhile, equity goes beyond equality by tailoring opportunities and resources to meet the specific needs of employees and addressing systemic disparities to ensure fair access for all. Inclusion creates environments where everyone feels genuinely safe, welcome and valued, fostering a sense of belonging that transcends superficial forms of integration.

Together, these DEI principles form the cornerstone of a socially just, cohesive and democratic society, where differences are not just acknowledged but embraced. By ensuring access to equitable opportunities, fostering inclusive workplaces, and encouraging diverse voices and perspectives, the tech sector can create an environment where everyone receives the resources, mentorship and recognition necessary to thrive.

The DEI imperative

In SA's tech sector, DEI are not just ethical mandates but crucial drivers of success. While there have been notable improvements in DEI over the last 30 years of our fledgling democracy, the workforce still sees an underrepresentation of marginalised groups, including women and people of colour, suggesting the need for ongoing efforts towards greater inclusivity continues to be necessary.

Additionally, balancing age diversity by integrating the wisdom of seasoned professionals with the fresh perspectives of the youth to spur a culture of innovation and problem-solving presents new sets of challenges.

For instance, consider the differences in values of older COBOL programmers, who bring decades of experience in maintaining and updating critical systems that many of today's financial and administrative infrastructures still rely on, who are now working with younger professionals, who might be more versed in modern programming languages like Java, Python or JavaScript, that are essential for driving innovation.

For DEI initiatives to succeed, strong support from top leadership is essential. DEI should be a top strategic priority, not just a tick box exercise to satisfy compliance requirements. It demands a genuine, ongoing commitment to avoid being overshadowed by other business concerns.

IT leaders should consistently advocate for DEI, acknowledging their own need for education, support and a safe space for open discussions and learning, similar to any major business strategy.

Given SA’s divisive history and the persistence of in-group favouritism and bias in everyday decisions, it is imperative to rigorously implement strategies that mitigate bias and foster a more equitable and inclusive society.

For IT leaders, succession planning also requires a comprehensive approach that encompasses mentorship, continuous learning and leadership development programmes. Future IT leaders should not only be proficient in current and emerging technologies but should also be prepared to embrace new challenges, manage polycrises and lead digital transformation efforts.

Consequently, effective succession planning means fostering a culture of diversity, equity and inclusion, recognising that diverse leadership teams in the future can contribute to more innovative solutions and better decision-making.

Turning the tide on the IT talent exodus

The Great Resignation in 2021 was particularly impactful in the tech industry in the US and globally, and signified a major shift as a substantial number of tech professionals voluntarily left their positions.

Driven by a re-evaluation of work-life balance, job satisfaction and career aspirations − factors intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic − this movement reflects tech workers' growing demands for flexibility, meaningful work and a supportive culture that aligns with their personal and professional goals.

The South African tech sector is still grappling with the aftermath, and organisations that fail to address crucial DEI elements risk higher turnover rates and may struggle to attract and retain talent.

Conversely, companies that actively promote DEI are more likely to create cultures where employees feel valued and supported, encouraging them to join and stay.

Moreover, the exodus of skilled IT professionals from SA to seemingly greener pastures abroad has created a palpable void in innovation and technological growth. Addressing this exodus of skilled IT professionals also calls for a deep integration of DEI principles.

By weaving DEI into the fabric of these solutions, the tech industry can ensure the strategies to retain and nurture IT talent are truly inclusive, offering equal opportunities across all demographics.

Incorporating DEI principles can help to create a diverse workforce that reflects the plurality of South African society, ensuring equitable access to career advancement opportunities and fostering an inclusive environment, where every IT professional feels valued and motivated to contribute to the nation’s technological growth.

This holistic approach can address the talent exodus and also build a stronger, more diverse and innovative IT sector poised for sustainable growth.

The double-edged sword of semigration

Semigration, the internal migration of talent to hubs like the Western Cape and Gauteng, presents a paradox. While it boosts the tech industry in these regions, it exacerbates disparities elsewhere.

By concentrating talent in specific regions, semigration deepens the economic and opportunity divide between urban centres and more rural or underdeveloped areas. This geographic disparity makes it harder for individuals in less favoured areas to access the same opportunities, training and resources, undermining efforts to achieve nationwide equity in tech.

When talent clusters in certain areas, there is a risk that these tech hubs may become echo chambers that lack the rich diversity of thought, background and perspective that other regions of SA could contribute. This concentration can hinder the industry’s creativity and innovation, as diverse teams are shown to produce better outcomes.

Moreover, the allure of tech hubs draws individuals away from their communities, leaving behind those who cannot or choose not to relocate due to personal, cultural or financial reasons. This can create an environment where only those with the means or desire to semigrate can participate in the tech boom, making inclusivity within the sector harder to achieve.

To counteract these negative impacts, it is essential to democratise access to tech jobs and training, invest in developing tech ecosystems outside traditional hubs, implement targeted DEI strategies that address the unique needs and challenges of different regions and communities across SA, and leverage remote work opportunities.

Remotely bridging divides and building inclusion

Remote work presents a dilemma for DEI, offering both opportunities and challenges. On the one hand, it democratises access to opportunities by breaking down geographic barriers, allowing individuals from diverse backgrounds and regions to participate in the tech industry. This can enhance diversity by integrating a broader spectrum of perspectives and experiences into the sector.

Furthermore, remote work promotes equity by providing flexible work arrangements that accommodate different needs, such as those of caregivers or individuals with disabilities, potentially levelling the playing field for underrepresented groups.

On the other hand, the shift to remote work necessitates deliberate efforts to maintain and foster an inclusive culture. Studies show that the absence of physical office rituals and the reliance on virtual interactions can dilute the sense of community and belonging among team members, making it imperative for organisations to create new rituals and practices that reinforce inclusivity.

These might include virtual coffee breaks, online team-building activities, or digital platforms that celebrate achievements and milestones, ensuring everyone feels valued and connected, irrespective of their physical location.

In essence, while remote work holds the promise of making SA's tech sector more diverse and equitable, realising this potential depends on proactive measures to foster inclusion and ensure the benefits of remote work are equitably distributed across all segments of society.

As the tech sector embraces the hybrid model − balancing remote work with returning to the office − it is crucial to ensure this transition supports DEI by fostering a sense of unity and belonging across all mediums of work.

This hybrid approach presents a unique opportunity to blend the best of both worlds, enhancing inclusivity and access, while maintaining the community and connection that physical spaces offer.

Closing the skills gap

Like our global counterparts, SA faces a widening skills gap in IT, exacerbated by rapidly-evolving technologies outpacing educational curriculums. Bridging this gap calls for a comprehensive approach that includes revising and enhancing curriculums to match industry requirements, promoting continuous learning within the workforce, and fostering a culture that prioritises skill advancement and technological agility.

One promising solution lies in public-private collaborations. These partnerships uniquely combine the practical focus of the private sector with the academic and research strengths of educational institutions. They are critical in creating industry-aligned training programmes and play a pivotal role in diversifying the IT workforce, thus benefiting businesses, communities and the economy.

Conventional education often fails to equip students with the necessary practical skills for the IT industry. Alternative pathways, such as vocational training, bootcamps and online courses, are essential in bridging this gap. They provide accessible IT education and career paths, especially for individuals from underserved communities, thus contributing to workforce diversity and economic mobility.

The benefits of IT training programmes extend beyond individual career advancement, fostering community development and empowerment. Improved employment opportunities and earnings for individuals from marginalised communities can enhance the overall economic health of these communities and drive development, resilience and a culture of skill-based empowerment.

It is also important to note that progressive IT team members value being part of organisations that cultivate not just a positive culture internally, but also make meaningful DEI contributions to broader society.

Actionable recommendations for a diverse and skilled IT workforce:

  • Develop strategies promoting equitable IT sector growth across regions, embracing remote work to distribute opportunities.
  • Pursue targeted recruitment for underrepresented groups and offer diverse internships.
  • Form alliances between tech companies and educational institutions for joint training initiatives.
  • Establish vocational and IT-focused boot camps, partnering with online platforms for affordable courses.
  • Encourage continuous learning and subsidise certification programmes for advanced IT skills.
  • Launch mentorship programmes and scholarships for marginalised groups.
  • Conduct diversity training and establish committees to promote inclusive practices.
  • Adopt online platforms to broaden IT education and internship accessibility.
  • Support local tech hubs and raise awareness of IT career opportunities.
  • Regularly evaluate and adapt diversity and training initiatives based on feedback and market needs.
  • Invest in initiatives that uplift the broader underrepresented communities by promoting education, economic empowerment and social justice.
  • Implement comprehensive training and career opportunities nationally to mitigate brain drain.

Towards a diverse IT talent ecosystem

A united effort across multiple sectors, from business, government and civil society, to the education and training sectors, is essential in transforming SA's IT talent pipeline. By addressing the brain drain, semigration and skill gaps, while nurturing diversity, equity and inclusion, SA can build a resilient and innovative IT workforce.

Collaborations between the abovementioned stakeholders and the development of alternative education pathways are essential to this transformation. Organisations should select partners that are aligned with their DEI mission and actively engage their teams in these collaborations to drive meaningful change and ultimately enrich the broader South African community.

Cultivating a culture of continuous learning and inclusivity will not only enhance individual careers but also spur broader economic growth, ensuring the nation’s competitiveness in the global digital economy.

Finally, the future of SA’s tech industry also depends on IT leaders who are able to adapt and innovate inclusively.

* This article is based on ongoing research conducted at the Wits School of Business Sciences related to the ‘30 Years of Democracy Project’. It focuses on the current state of talent in SA's tech industry, including challenges related to diversity, equity, inclusion and skill shortages.