The telecommunications sector – at R99-billion and 7% of GDP as big a contributor to the economy as mining – is sorely lacking in formal skills development, an issue which it needs to address urgently.

This is the overwhelming conclusion from the newly-released 2009 Telecommunications Sector Survey carried out by executive search company Landelahni Business Leaders.
Surprisingly for such a large and strategic sector, telecommunications relies mostly on vendor training and on-the-job learning or mentoring, without formal engineering qualifications underpinning these skills, or proper career pathing.
On the plus side, the sector is far ahead of the all-industry average in terms of black employment equity although it lags considerably in gender equality.
However, its erratic skills development and training record means it needs to implement proactive skills planning if it is to meet the resourcing challenges of this fast-paced industry – and the current slowdown could be the breathing space required to get these formal programmes underway.
"There is an inadequate trickle of suitably qualified candidates entering the sector," says Landelahni CEO Sandra Burmeister. "As a result, industry players rely to a high degree on in-company training so as to develop the required skills.
"In an increasingly competitive global environment, with new technologies appearing at an ever-faster rate, technology has emerged as the single biggest driver of skills shortages globally.
"This is exacerbated in the telecommunications and IT sectors, which are seen as a spur to economic growth."
In South Africa, the telecommunications landscape has changed remarkably in the last 15 years, moving from one fixed-line, state-owned operator to 18 companies competing on fixed line, wireless and mobile for the growing voice and data market.
Burmeister believes telecommunications companies need to take a more planned approach to recruitment and training in order to meet future demands.
"Internal skills need to be identified and assessed to determine competency levels and potential for investment in further development," she says. "Formal investment by way of bursaries is an economic imperative for a sustainable telecoms sector.
"While we will continue to see an increase of retires and offshore contractors and foreign nationals to run key projects, and hopefully act as coaches and mentors to new recruits, a more planned approach will assist in guarding against short-term delivery at the expense of skills investment."