Meet the skills challenge with pre-competition
We can't beat the skills challenge without joining forces.
South Africa has a staggering ICT skills shortage problem and companies aren't doing enough to change that. But, it can be overcome if business, government and tertiary institutions do one thing: collaborate, then compete.
One can easily find articles over a decade old that already warn about the shortage of ICT skills. That deficit has not been filled and, by many measures, is growing. According to last year's Joburg Centre for Software Engineering ICT Skills Survey, 75% of respondents in the IT sector said the skills shortage is having an effect on their businesses, up from 71% last year.
The shortfall is aggravated by the government's routine denial of visas, as many as 60%, for people with scarce skills, not to mention the considerable haemorrhaging of high-skilled professionals to other countries.
But, the core problem lies in a lack of local training. Poaching of talent is rife among South African companies, to a point where salaries are now becoming uncompetitive. Why is this happening?
"I think it's a business culture problem," says Professor Barry Dwolatzky from Wits University. "All skills in South Africa come from our schools and tertiary education systems. The government pays for those: it's pre-competitive in the sense that all companies pay tax and contribute towards the creation of those skills. That same philosophy of using taxes to train certain levels of skills should carry forward in training more specialised levels of skills.
"But companies are not making the transition. They are comfortable or have no choice to pay tax, but they won't take the output or dropouts of those universities and say 'let's work together to carry those skills forward'."
Here is a simple example of this at play. Many local banks still have legacy systems that function on the COBOL programming language. This is not a fashionable language and finding new talent to replace ageing developers has been hard. Yet, banks generally need it.
So, where are the COBOL academies established between financial institutions? There are none and this speaks volumes about the problem. Banks are more likely to poach COBOL graduates that competitors have trained, so as a result, nobody moves first.
The solution is to build closer ties between companies and tertiary institutions such as universities. This has been the strategy at Micro Focus South Africa, where country manager Gary de Menezes is a major advocate for such collaboration: "Companies and universities used to co-operate, but have stopped doing so. The one waits for the other to produce graduates, then swallows them up before the competition can. But, then the competition poaches that person just as you have them ready to work. It's a staring contest in which nobody really wins. The way to break that is to move closer to learning institutions, guiding and supporting them to get the right quality and volume of people through."
Dwolatzky sees it in a similar light, noting both corporate and tertiary spaces have become ivory towers that don't communicate with each other. He said companies should establish skills advisory boards and bring academics onto company boards: "It's something I'm proud of. Over the last 15 years, I've formed very firm and rewarding partnerships between my work at Wits and companies. But I don't think that's the norm."
To break this impasse, companies must set aside the notion that competition is everything. Prior to hiring a graduate, there exist pre-competitive spaces where everyone can invest, namely learning environments. They can thus help maintain the skills quality and requirements they need, then compete over the graduates once they are ready. This way, everyone benefits and headhunting becomes a last resort, not a matter of course.
Such a mindset even encourages entrepreneurship. Dwolatzky is one of the forces behind the Tshimologong Precinct, a technology incubator based in Johannesburg that actively invites local businesses to join in. Since the development of a digital product can take time, incubators need the input of companies to guide those projects into commercial viability. If businesses lurk outside and grab concepts as they appear, they simply cannibalise the system and often don't get what they want anyway.
Partnerships are crucial
A change of attitude is desperately needed here. Companies rarely bother with developmental programmes that both help pick up the training slack and also serve their needs effectively. Instead, many will lambaste universities and colleges because graduates are not ready to work. They literally expect them to hit the ground running.
But, this expectation is a little absurd, says Dwolatzky. Graduates are taught a solid foundation, but the nuts and bolts of daily operations have to come from the companies. They should take several months to inculcate their hires into that new world. This is the practice in fast-growing economies: "If you look at India, the large IT companies there like Tata and Wipro recruit very good graduates and then spend anything from six months to a year training that person in the company's technology, processes and ways of working. But, locally, a lot of companies don't and they just expect people straight out of university to be ready for work."
The skills gap in South Africa runs parallel to the gap of understanding between corporate and educational South Africa. This is a problem affecting all sectors, particularly industrial concerns. But in a global climate, where ICT skills are growing scarcer, the technology sector is the canary in the coal mine, and in South Africa, it's close to falling to the floor. The time to act is now and it starts at the top, says De Menezes: "We have the academic brains in South Africa who understand the new business world, technology's influence and the risks of technology in business. The board needs to worry that some technology thing can wipe half of its value and destroy the company, they need to understand this. So if they can be closer to higher education, there will be a two-way value proposition. Business people will get to understand some of the new influences and risks to their companies, regardless of their age."