As the world increasingly turns to technology to change how we communicate, shape our access to knowledge and transform our everyday lives, South Africa should be poised to capitalise on this huge international growth, building a stronger IT sector and offering the innovative thinking that epitomises our technology field
However, the country lacks the key ingredient for success on a global stage – a sufficient pool of skilled software engineers, equipped to exploit current opportunities in the market.
“This is not a new problem,” comments Professor Willem Visser, head of Computer Science at Stellenbosch University (SU). "The dire skills shortage within the IT sector has been plaguing the industry for the last five years and this shortage remains the most important constraint on business growth within the field.
"However, measures are being taken to address the issues, starting with high school level intervention and comprehensive programmes at tertiary level – this is crucial to ensure we can maximise the potential inherent in the industry.”
Figures suggest that about 100 000 new IT jobs will be created between 2010 and 2013 but currently training institutions are producing only a fraction of this number of graduates. And, while the IT sector only currently contributes approximately 5% of the country’s GDP, it’s earmarked as one of the largest growth areas for job creation and economic expansion.
“IT is a dynamic, ever-evolving industry,” notes Jenny McKinnell, executive director of the Cape IT Initiative (CITI). “However, the perception of a career in IT as ‘uncool’ or unattractive needs to be overcome to ensure we can grow the pipeline of students choosing careers in the software and technology industry and thus meet the forecasted demand for skilled graduates
“Projects like Silicon Cape and the work we do at CITI, including our IT Heroes campaign, are imperative in creating a favourable perception around the industry, almost “glamourising” the career. However, there is much to be done to ensure we can supply enough students to even satisfy current demand from South African corporates and the government.”
But, with a huge focus already placed on promoting existing innovation hubs and connecting promising start-ups with investors, what is being done within high schools and tertiary institutions to both feed the demand for graduates and attract a new breed of talent to the exciting field of IT?
“Most prospective students, when searching for a career, might not consider IT as an option,” comments Professor Lynette van Zijl, a computer science lecturer and researcher at SU. “However, many don’t realise that technology is a recession-proof career and the challenge is to promote the industry to high school students and then retain that talent.”
SU is currently working on a number of initiatives to both attract potential students and feed experienced students into the sector. Outside of partnerships with local and national government bodies, and NPOs like CITI, the university is also working with local Western Cape schools on heightening awareness around the field.