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How to address the IT skills shortage

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The question of whether there is a skills shortage should not really be subject to debate, writes Chris Wilkins, CEO of DVT. There is unquestionably a shortage of certain types of IT skills.

But what type of skill is in demand is worth consideration? We are seeing a shortage of graduates with average to high grades and two to four years’ experience in newer technologies. There is, however, a ready supply of school leavers with minimal experience and graduates with qualifications from private colleges and less well known educational institutions.
There is no silver bullet available that will fix the problem.
Although industry and commerce will go some way to address the shortage by funding training and providing opportunities to get hands-on commercial experience, the truth is that an IT sector with wafer-thin margins and stiff competition has little room to absorb training costs and professional mentoring.
The result is that those companies with recognised brands and solid reputations will attract most of the skills, the rest will take what they can, and the result will be a decline in standards and an economy constrained by limits on capacity.
The consequences of this shortage are far-reaching and profound, especially within the IT sector itself. But first consider a factor that aggravates the symptoms of a skills shortage, and then propagates the problem still further. A large number of companies in South Africa insist on building and retaining their own IT capability.
This typically means that most IT professionals employed in an IT department are only using a limited range of their skills to service unique and specific needs. Neither are they deployed in the most efficient manner. Consider the exceptional senior developer who typically has a productive factor of up to 10 times his less ambitious or intellectual colleague. He is also a brilliant systems architect.
This developer will only remain highly productive for as long as he works on stimulating and challenging assignments, of which any IT department has a limited supply. For the rest of the time he will be unfulfilled and will eventually look for another job.
Continuity and valuable knowledge are lost. He will also spend less than 10% of his time using his brilliant systems architecture skills because any given company only has so much architecture to design.
The answer is to look at outsourced partnerships with software services providers. Although outsourcing does not have a perfect record, it still compares favourably to any internal IT department when it comes to faster, predictable, and consistent delivery.
On balance, in a market with an acute skills shortage of top technologists, it is better to employ top-end technologists in services companies that by default spread the skills more evenly through the industry, and allow systems specialists to be deployed such that they utilise the full range of their skills for the best part of the working day.
The other consequences of the skills shortage will be to constrain business growth, drive up prices, introduce more pressure into an already pressured industry, and entice professionals to job-hop for dramatic increases in salary.