Holes in SA's skills pipeline
SA's ICT skills pipeline is broken, with the skills being fed into industry not matching the needs. For reasons that can not be explained, South Africans do not have respect for education, which is most likely why this has happened.
This is the view of Marius de Beer, software coach and mentor at ScrumSense, which offers coaching services to software teams. He argues that skilled individuals are the lifeblood of the industry and that recovery and growth will only be possible with a sustained ICT skills pipeline.
De Beer explains that should the ICT industry fall below a minimal skills base, the result will not be an exodus of skills but rather an exodus of employment. “We must prevent this from happening, and our only weapon is meeting SA's skills requirements,” he states.
According to De Beer, the ICT industry is filled with extremely talented and highly educated individuals, which begs the question of how the skills crisis came about. He notes the problem is a complex one, and points to a number of contributing factors.
De Beer says a lack of statistics has contributed to the skills crisis. “Any ICT professional will quickly point out that a control system can not exist without a measurement and feedback loop. Yet, the ICT profession has been incapable of accurately classifying the nature of the skills shortage and by extension the skills gap, thus rendering the system unmanageable,” he explains.
The industry has seen a reduction in quality, as ICT employers eager to grow staff count, but faced with the severe skills shortage, often opt for a reduction in search criteria. This under the auspice of future training and skills development, notes De Beer.
“Unfortunately, the follow-up training and skills development is seldom implemented. The net effect is an overall reduction in skill level and by extension, quality,” he states.
On the other hand, no platform exists for recognition of skilled professionals committed to continued education and excellence, De Beer continues. Similarly, skills development organisations receive little public recognition. “This omission robs the ICT industry of the opportunity to capitalise on 'success breeding success'.”
Issues of the skills half-life and 'on-the-job' experience have produced a number of ICT skills initiatives to help alleviate the crisis. However, based on approximately 20 interviews with Western Cape-based ICT employers, De Beer found they had not heard of most of these initiatives, and do not have any details of the ones they have heard of.
“Additionally, most of the initiatives suffer a struggled existence since they all compete for the same funding,” notes De Beer. Despite these challenges, the overarching hurdle seems to be that of education.
The lack of respect for education is reflected by the number of companies complaining about the skills crisis, versus the number of companies actively supporting educational programmes, states De Beer.
Tellumat's CEO, Rasheed Hargey, argues the skills issue must be dealt with at a fundamental level. Schools must promote maths and science from the very earliest days, he explains.
“It starts right at the bottom, by getting a child to focus on maths and science when they are four or five years old. We tend to focus on students in grade 10 to 12 but if the foundation has not been laid early, it's too late,” opines Hargey.
At the higher education scale of the spectrum, Tellumat believes the appointment of Dr Blade Nzimande as the first minister of higher education and training, last year, should create more focus on improving higher-level skills.
De Beer argues that industry must take responsibility for education - if an employer complains that they can not find certain skills, then they need to invest in the relevant educational programmes. Furthermore, the industry needs to visit schools and actively market their profession.
Finance director at Tellumat, Graham Meyer, points out that companies stand to gain by investing in skills. He refers to president Jacob Zuma's state of the nation address, which announced government's plans to give tax incentives to private firms that recruit young graduates who have no work experience.
“If you employ a new entrant, aged 18 to 24, into the marketplace, there will be a subsidy for up to two years. This will make employers more willing to take on inexperienced people because they can do it cheaply. It will give people some initial work experience and help them become valuable to a company instead of being a burden,” states Meyer.
To this end, De Beer believes it is the responsibility of every ICT professional to contribute towards alleviating the skills crisis. “I believe we can accomplish a substantial change in the next four years, provided we can focus our efforts and address the crisis as an industry and a community.
“Government, academia and most importantly the ICT industry must dedicate and coordinate efforts. Without such action we will see deterioration,” concludes De Beer.