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Cabbages & Kings: No shortage of skills when it comes to spin

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Over the past week the ICT sector responded with alacrity to the call to do something about the so-called crippling skills shortage in the country. 

Within days of the seventh annual Presidential International Advisory Council (PIAC) meeting several major multinational vendors as well as a number of local companies rushed into print to announce multi-million rand e-skills development and training programmes.
Described as critical to the global competitiveness of the South African economy and key to accelerating social development, any casual observer would be forgiven for believing that professional ICT skills alone are the panacea to all the country’s problems.
If only this was true.
In several instances it seemed fairly obvious that the prime motivation for launching an e-skills programme during the past week was to curry favour with the government – the biggest-spending ICT customer in the country.
In other instances the programmes appeared to be no more than a thinly veiled attempt to build "Brownie points" in the high-stakes BEE credentials game.
For proof of this you need look no further than a report that emerged at the height of the skills development announcement frenzy that suggested that the ICT skills shortage is not nearly as critical as we are led to believe.
Using statistics gleaned from a survey among ICT companies, the report found that fewer than 3 000 skilled IT professionals are needed to fill vacancies in the industry – roughly 1,2 vacancies per company. Other estimates suggest that in a sector that currently employs about 200 000 people the shortfall will exceed 60 000 vacancies within the next two years.
Somehow or other in the rush to get on the e-skills development "bandwagon", several players seemed to have lost sight of the fact that there is a massive difference between what skills are required to design, install and commission ICT solutions, and the skills needed to operate and use productivity-enhancing technology and systems.
As the one report suggests, there is a negligible shortage of skills when it comes to the ability to sell and supply ICT solutions into the market, particularly among the major multinationals and well-established local IT groups. However, when it comes to using this same technology to foster business profitability and enhance service delivery, there is most certainly a crisis.
It is this skills gap – at the coal-face of day-to-day operations and at a primary application level – that needs to be addressed.
Amid the hype and publicity surrounding the various e-skills announcements in the wake of the PIAC meeting, only one vendor seemed to understand that the emphasis should be on producing "job-ready" skills based on participation and collaboration by the industry as a whole.
In most other announcements there was little left to the imagination – that the vendor concerned was going to be investing in skills to produce ICT professionals who could be sent forth into the market as evangelists to promote and support their own products.
Let’s hope that the formation of the e-Skills Advisory Council announced by President Mbeki is going to be given the power to make some sense out of the "spin" we have been subjected to over the past week.
– David Bryant