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ICT skills research reveals SA’s gig economy is far off

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Although a shift to the gig economy has not yet occurred in South Africa’s ICT sector, as the ICT skills gap lingers, it is plausible that various forces in the industry might change this in the future.

This is one of the key findings of 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 findings, announced during a webinar this afternoon, show the COVID-19 pandemic, and the resultant shift to work-from-home (WFH) for most local organisations, exposed SA’s digital divide and the widening ICT skills gap – factors which fracture the possibilities of a thriving gig culture in the country.

While the gig economy has been trumpeted by ICT industry pundits as a viable solution to SA’s joblessness, the survey results point out the country has not yet entered a fully-fledged gig economy, which relies heavily on digital, creative, analytical, ICT and relationship-building skills.

The outbreak of the pandemic had a profound impact on the world of work, as suddenly employees were no longer doing their “job” at their employer’s workplace and employers have been forced to find new ways of managing employees, it notes.

This has left many wondering about the possibilities of employees being able to carry out multiple specific tasks remotely, while expanding their income-earning opportunities outside of traditional, long-term employer-employee relationships, notes the survey.

While the nascent gig economy in SA is already assisting with unemployment in various industries, particularly in e-hailing, e-commerce, entertainment and online delivery services, the survey points out this will not yet happen on a wider scale in SA.

“A question that many have asked is: does the arrangement linking an employee to a single employer still make sense? Shouldn’t a ‘job’ be broken down into a sequence of tasks, which can then be carried out by anyone able to carry out that task when required? The results of the survey presented in this report show this change is not occurring in SA. Employees remain attached to a single employer even though they now WFH,” said professor Barry Dwolatzky, director of the JCSE and co-author of the report.

Several factors will play a significant role in re-negotiating this historic and exclusive arrangement between employer and employee.

“Over time, the ICT sector has managed to invent and innovate processes and practices to adopt WFH as a primary way of working. One such change, and arguably a major redefinition of a role, has been the responsibilities of the traditional manager,” notes the survey.

“With little oversight possible, tasks have been broken up into smaller subtasks independently planned and executed by employees based on their strengths and experience. Employees have become empowered, can take ownership, make decisions and deliver work based on the conditions they find themselves in. Employees are committed and more effective. Employers have been surprised at the increase in the output that has been achieved.”

Underpinned by forced introspection, employees have discovered the possibility and importance of a better work-life balance, the ability to deliver quality output from anywhere, as well as the value of good ICT skills – factors which make a gig economy possible in future, notes the survey.

Adrian Schofield, production consultant at the IITPSA and co-author of the JCSE-IITPSA ICT Skills Survey.
Adrian Schofield, production consultant at the IITPSA and co-author of the JCSE-IITPSA ICT Skills Survey.

Multi-tasking phenomenon

The survey notes that the types of skills that remain in high demand in SA include information security, big data design / analytics, DevOps, artificial intelligence / machine learning / internet of things, data management, connectivity and test automation / performance testing.

The worsening skills shortage remains a hindrance to the gig economy and SA’s fourth industrial revolution.

“The multi-skilling and multi-tasking phenomenon is still a feature in the ICT sector, with ICT practitioners able to do more than one specialisation. This leads to whether or not we can adjust the way people work into a gig economy, but this economy works on a basis that there are specialists who can perform specific tasks very well, rather than approaching a much broader set of requirements,” said Adrian Schofield, production consultant at the IITPSA and co-author of the JCSE-IITPSA ICT Skills Survey.

The survey further highlights the important role of the education sector in addressing the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills gap, and the need for employers to heavily invest in upskilling and re-skilling programmes, and identify the skills that need to be replaced in the workplace.

“This survey has repeatedly highlighted the poor state of education in SA, and in particular, the very low number of learners achieving competence in STEM subjects,” added Schofield.

“There are many initiatives attempting to address this issue, but they tend to be in relatively small pockets and are not resolving the underlying lack of appropriate curriculum, relevant teaching materials and skilled teachers. This has become even more serious, due to the amount of schooling lost during the pandemic lockdowns.”

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