COVID-19 crisis fast-tracks demand for software, data science skills

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While many South African companies have halted their recruitment processes during the economic downturn presented by the COVID-19 crisis, the demand for IT skills has escalated since the onset of the national lockdown.

Despite the unemployment rate spiking across all sectors of the economy, as companies restructure to stay afloat amid the weakening economy, local recruitment firms told ITWeb they have seen the greatest demand for software developers, data analysts, data warehousing skills and IT support technicians, as more organisations implement remote working policies, while others look to offer customers digital products and services.

Stephen van der Heijden, VP of growth at OfferZen, an online recruitment marketplace for IT professionals, says while companies that have suffered the brunt of lockdown restrictions stopped hiring, there has been a general increase in demand for tech talent.

“From what we've seen, we believe COVID-19 has served as a ‘fast forward’ button for tech by rapidly accelerating existing trends like remote work, e-commerce and digitisation.

“For the first time, we saw start-ups sending more interview requests than our mid-market companies. It seems that innovative, agile organisations are currently winning…and finding opportunities to take great talent while the enterprises are figuring out what to do in this ‘new normal’.”

Despite the economic downturn, Van der Heijden believes the global pandemic has highlighted the robustness of companies that are able to take their operations online, empowering remote work and work functions across distributed teams.

“While it’s obviously very hard to predict exactly which companies will emerge as the survivors and ultimately the winners of the pandemic, there is one fact we’re confident on that our data seems to support – digitisation is only being accelerated by COVID-19; companies that are embracing it are thriving more than ever, and software developers will continue to be in demand for the foreseeable future,” he adds.

Adrian Schofield, production consultant at the Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa (IITPSA) and author of the 2019 JCSE-IITPSA ICT Skills Survey report, believes that despite significant decreases in labour demand since the inception of the lockdown, software development remains the most in-demand skills set in the South African labour market.

“Although the demand for ICT skills remains higher than the available supply, the Career Junction June Summary indicates a reduction of as much as one-third in demand for ICT skills between March and June 2020.

“There was also a surge in opportunities for Web developers and Web designers at the beginning of lockdown, as SMMEs and brick-and-mortar retailers rushed to go online. The tech sub-sectors that will continue to have work opportunities will likely be those supporting the shift to remote working, which is likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future. The adoption of the various technologies that make up the fourth industrial revolution could also create further demand for skills.”

There have been reports of automation and robotic process automation (RPA) demand picking up, which could point to future job losses in areas that can be automated, Schofield asserts.

“On the one hand, this presents opportunities for those with high-end automation and RPA skills. However, this is likely to taper off, as businesses have their online presence established. We have seen some attrition in sales and technical pre-sales positions, with some ICT companies cutting back as customers slash budgets.”

Overall, the ability of the sector to rebound will depend on it having customers, so the rest of the economy will have to rebound too, in order to increase opportunities for the IT sector, he continues.

Marcus Grove, marketing and communications manager at job-seeker and recruiter portal Career Junction, says software development and data warehousing skills remain on the forefront of labour market demand in SA.

“While hiring activity slowed down significantly for IT professionals across most skill-sets since the beginning of lockdown, demand for data analysis and data warehousing skills seemed unaffected and remained stable. Other IT skills sets which are sought-after include data analysis and data warehousing skills, as well as business analysis skills.”

Looking at the most recent labour market trends, recruitment activity for systems and network administration skills and business analysis skills is slowly picking up and showing the first signs of recovery, adds Grove.

Anish Shivdasani, CEO and co-founder of Giraffe.
Anish Shivdasani, CEO and co-founder of Giraffe.

Rising developer costs

Anish Shivdasani, CEO and co-founder of online recruiter Giraffe, says the company has seen a consistency in demand for IT professionals.

“Even during lockdown, our clients were hiring for IT roles. So in numerical terms, we have seen 0% change in the demand. Software developers – full stack, Java, C# and react, as well as IT support technicians, have been in continuous demand.”

Looking at a post-COVID-19 SA, Shivdasani says the crisis has normalised remote working, which will have some interesting consequences – specifically the tendency to offshore development.

“We are seeing a lot of clients and partners starting to outsource their development work to countries like India, Vietnam, Ukraine, Portugal and Spain.

“This is because those countries have a much larger pool of developer talent and the costs in many cases have actually become cheaper than in SA.

“Developer costs are rising in SA because demand is increasing, but the supply is not keeping up with demand. If a remote developer in India is cheaper than the same skill-level remote developer in SA, many companies would opt to offshore.”

Moira de Roche, non-executive director of the IITPSA and chairperson of the IFIP International Professional Practice Partnership, says the “new normal” may mean now, more than ever before, ICT professionals will have to be agile, and cultivate a range of new skills to remain relevant and competitive in future.

“We may see certain jobs becoming less plentiful, and some roles will change. For example, network administrators will still be needed, but their skills sets will be different. Jobs that have been plentiful in the past, such as programming, may be impacted as companies take a critical look at these jobs and look at the numbers of people needed.”

De Roche foresees the emergence of a new focus on co-creation, requiring the development of a range of power skills such as empathy, excellent communications skills, design thinking, problem solving and critical thinking.

She believes cloud computing, blockchain and robotics will continue to be in demand as companies look to automation, with their teams working remotely.

“The need for cyber security skills will increase as more people work from home, and those with expertise in cyber-currencies will be in demand as financial institutions explore cyber-currencies. We can also expect growing demand for communications, data analytics, data science and 5G communications skills in future.”

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