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SA’s ICT recruitment, skills and training at a crossroads

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Companies continue to integrate new technologies into business processes but as the pace of the digital revolution escalates, quality ICT practitioners are becoming ever scarcer. Importing these skills is not a sustainable solution. The ICT recruitment, skills and training market in South Africa is at a crossroads – to build a sustainable ICT workforce, more thought and effort needs to be put into skills development and retention.

"Human capital is unquestionably a critical element that drives the qualitative and quantitative aspects of a company's bottom line," says Haseena Parak, director at Human Capital Institute, a recruitment and contracting firm specialising in the global sourcing of specialist ICT practitioners and business unit within e.com institute.   
"If South African companies are to prevent a meltdown in operational capacity and capability, skills development and retention strategies and programmes must become a top priority for human resource (HR) and executive management."
There are a number of factors driving the skills dearth. Parak explains: "In the high-demand ICT domain, practitioners are often lured by attractive packages and benefits, resulting in dangerously excessive staff churn and a static talent pool. The problem is further exacerbated by the mission-critical and indispensable nature of ICT jobs, with many companies threatened by productivity losses when these key practitioners resign.
"Companies are thus inadvertently held hostage to disproportionate remuneration packages."
In addition, the 'brain drain' to developed countries continues. "The propositions are attractive," notes Parak. "They include highly competitive remuneration structures and benefits, exposure to a diverse range of  technologies, a wider choice of potential employers and the high adoption rate of new technologies by a larger base of companies.
To further compound matters, the quality of education offered by most universities and colleges in South Africa leaves much to be desired," she adds, "as they tend to focus on old and frequently obsolete technologies. Career-minded individuals are thus also choosing to study abroad."
Quality and scarcity of good skills is a problem across the gamut of ICT and not necessarily confined to any one area. Says Parak: "The retention of scarce skills requires attention be paid to a number of factors. These include the quality and effectiveness of management; job satisfaction; recognition; skills development and training; enabling staff to 'own' their jobs; flexibility; challenges; exposure to new technologies; and rewards for achieving milestones. Employers need to configure individual programs by determining the relevance of each of these factors for every practitioner.
"It is essential for a retention strategy checklist to include the identification of turnover hot spots, high risk groups, cost impact, trends and the perceptions of employees," she notes. "In addition, management will gain considerable insight into attrition by conducting well structured exit interviews that identify weak spots."
She adds that incentive programmes should also be considered to retain skills, knowledge management mechanisms must be implemented to retain intellectual property, and progression opportunities must be instituted to ensure job satisfaction and growth.
"To properly utilise skills, a challenging environment must be created," Parak emphasises. "If skilled staff stagnate, they will move on or moonlight. A common mistake is to freeze staff in positions where they are performing well. While this may be good for the business in the short term, it is potentially disastrous in the long-term as ICT practitioners feel deprived of personal progression or stimulation."
Getting the right person for the job is the first challenge.
"The recruitment process, which generally comprises profiling, advertising, interviewing, selecting and appointing such specialist skills, is costly and arduous with little guarantee of success," says Parak. "The reason for this is that many traditional recruitment firms focus on filling the position rather than searching for quality with proper attentiveness to their clients' needs.
On the other hand, companies also contribute to these disappointments. "Job descriptions are often way off the mark, tariff structures are not appropriately defined and staff, when appointed, are not properly managed," she notes. "This results in disjointed efforts and a lack of direction. To improve its results, companies must plot outcomes and align appropriate roles and functions to achieving these goals.
"A key problem is that companies look for particular skills rather than the delivery of a project. Accountability and responsibility must be part of the job description and payment should be linked to outcomes, rather than be time based," she says.
Some of the fatal flaws with regard to managing ICT include offering ridiculously high remuneration packages, applying trial-and-error methodologies on new projects, remaining in maintenance mode on existing legacy systems, applying a 'band-aid' approach to solving problems, postponing decisions to procure new technologies or merely deciding against investing in new technologies.
These approaches are not sustainable, says Parak. "Instead, businesses should consider investing in programs that promote skills retention through skills development delivering rewards that ultimately benefit these companies directly and the country as a whole."
To follow best practice, Parak suggests companies create a policy for staff retention that includes:
* Remuneration at industry standards;
* Employee wellness programmes;
* Training and skills development – aligned to strategy;
* Bonus or incentive programmes;
* KPIs and balanced scorecards; and
* Structures and benefits that make jobs attractive.