South Africa still has a massive skills shortage in ICT, with a concerted effort from industry and academia required to help the country build the capacity needed to develop a digital economy.
These are the headline findings from the latest Johannesburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE)skills survey, which seeks to plug the skills gap.
As the country plans its skills picture for the next couple of years, it’s important to take cognisance of the big global trends, including the Internet of Things (IoT), big data, cloud computing and the growing concerns around cyber security.
Adrian Schofield, manager of the applied research unit at the JCSE, points out that these big trends are resulting in a lot of value creation, but also value destruction – as new companies are being created, there are many that are also disappearing.
New issues are appearing around hardware versus software skills, with more concern on the applications. At the same time, robotics and 3D printing are become mainstream.
There are massive skills shortages around the word, Schofield adds – including 756 000 in the EU, of which one-third are at management level. Meanwhile, the US hasĀ  shortage of 290 000 cybersecurity skills, and Cisco estimates a shortage of 1,5-million security skills globally.
In Finland, meanwhile, Nokia put 15 000 people out of work but the country cannot find 7 000 software engineers
Closer to home, South Africa doesn’t have enough software engineers to build a digital economy, although it’s hard to get a firm figure on that those skills shortages are.
The balance between supplying and consuming skills shows that there is a lot of activity on all front.
On the positive side, IBM is opening its second research lab in Africa, SAP has had huge success with its Code Week, and Amazon has opened its second office in South Africa.
On the negative side, there is a recession, the failure to complete digital migration to free up spectrum for broadband access, and the similar failure to get SA Connect to achieve anything concreate.
Still in the balance are things like the National ICT Policy that has still not been released; and the B-BBEE ICT Sector Council that may or may not have a positive influence on industry development, Schofield says.
In the JCSE survey, two groups of respondents were polled: employers were asked about skills development and its challenges; and the practitioners were asked to outline their own experience.
One of the main challenges, Schofield adds, is the difficulty in accessing up-to-date data. But there is no doubt that there are massive skills shortages, even though there is a dispute about exactly what those skills are.
Schofield says South Africa continues to fall behind its African peers while the state of the local economy sees the sector’s clients cut back their own expenditures.
He adds that the lack of improvement in South Africa’s basic education remains a major concern. “Exposure to and familiarity with ICT for all learners is essential. Some laudable initiatives have appeared, such as the use of tablets in Gauteng schools, but they have yet to reach a sustained, critical mass for all grades of learners.”
Trends in technology adoption place increasing emphasis on ICT sub-sectors such as cloud; big data/analytics; mobile; security and the Internet of Things (IoT).
The 2016 survey once again identifies six leading priorities for managers of ICTs, with information security emerging as the clear leader, followed by network infrastructure, software as a service/cloud computing, database development and application development.
Owing to its growing profile, the report separated sixth place big data/IoT from the business intelligence/knowledge management category, which now appears in seventh place.
“Many of the characteristics of the global ICT sector that were mentioned in our 2014 report remain true in 2016,” Schofield explains. “What were then emerging technologies, such as cloud computing and the Internet of Things (IoT), have become mainstream and the issue of cybersecurity has risen to top-of-mind for many senior executives.”
In the report the JCSE says technology developments have reached the stage of being referred to as ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution’, signalling the disruption of business models and labour dynamics. While the introduction and increased use of new technologies will inevitably reduce the demand for labour used for white-collar roles and repetitive tasks, there will be a converse demand for the specialised skills that create, implement and maintain these new technologies.
Schofield says the message to decision- and policy-makers seems clear. “There is an immediate unsatisfied need for skills in the ICT sector that is only going to get worse in the medium and long term. Significant and sustained investment in education and training is required to have any hope of alleviating the skills gap.”
Professor Barry Dwolatzky, director of the JCSE, says previous editions of the survey referred to the optimism of potential growth in the African economy and the opportunity for investment in ICTs to fuel growth.
Despite some positive developments, however, the report notes that political turmoil continues to bedevil the lives of many Africans, often exacerbated by the effects of floods and droughts, while in South Africa the economy shows worrying signs of sliding into a recession.
Similarly, political uncertainty and poor leadership are having a negative impact on many sectors. As an example, the report cites a failure to implement vital projects in the ICT sector, such as the switch to digital terrestrial television services and the implementation of the national broadband network.
“Our view is that the ICT skills gap in South Africa is a reality that continues to haunt the country’s ability to lift its performance across all sectors to the level that will sustainably address the unacceptable burdens of poverty and unemployment,” Dwolatzky adds.
The 2016 JCSE ICT Skills Survey suggests various players in the South African ICT sector including government departments and agencies, commercial enterprises, non-profit organisations and associations form a cohesive and co-ordinated team in order to meet and overcome challenges and address the skills gap.
“We urge all stakeholders to take the opportunity to translate the policy into capacity-building by ensuring that co-ordinated skills development provides the building blocks for creating the dynamic, sustainable ICT sector that will support the growth of South Africa’s economy and the improvement in the lives of all who live here,” Schofield says.
The typical South African ICT practitioners is still white, male, 35 years old, has a diploma or degree, have been working for 10 years and has been working for his current employer for three years.
These practitioners are still expected to multi-task, Schofield says, with most having to perform five different tasks and so having to specialise in multiple areas. On the business activities side this is closer to three activities.
“The result is that these people tend to be expensive because they have a range of expertise,” Schofield says. “It increases the risk to the employer because they could be irreplaceable. And it denies people the opportunity to get jobs where they could become more singular specialists, while having the employment opportunities spread to a wider base.”
Practitioners learnt most of what they do on the job, followed by a degree, then a vendor short course.
“At the end of the day, we are saying that some things don’t change,” Schofield says. “There are many skills initiatives in South Africa, but they are often disconnected and operate in silos.”
While connections are improving, opening up opportunities to learn through technology, there are still a number of negatives that need to be addressed.
These include the fact that we suffer perennially from poor and delayed policies, says Schofield. The industry has fragmented representation; and the data we have to work with is disjointed.
“We need investment in education and training – and changed attitudes,” he says. “There is untapped potential for ICT contribution to socio-economic growth because of restrictions and restraints.
“We need to stop talking and start doing.”