The widespread acceptance of hybrid work and international workforces raises questions around whether a gig economy will favour only those IT professionals who already have workplace experience, and how young professionals will gain practical knowledge working in isolation.
This emerged during a webinar hosted by the Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa (IITPSA) and the authors of the 2022 JCSE-IITPSA ICT Skills Survey Professor Barry Dwolatzky, director of the JCSE at Wits University, and Adrian Schofield, production consultant at the IITPSA.
Aiming to unpack what a borderless world of work will mean for IT, the webinar discussed the changes that might be expected in IT working environments and skills development in a new world of work.
Polls of participants found that 80% are now looking for opportunities to work for international companies for the first time, while 14% already work for international companies and 4% said they would not know where to find opportunities. Nobody indicated they were not interested in international opportunities.
Forty-seven percent said their main reason for working remotely for international firms would be to gain international experience, 42% wanted to earn foreign currency while living at home in South Africa and 10% were motivated by networking with international IT leaders. None said they would seek international work because there were insufficient opportunities locally.
The webinar also polled employers participating in the event and found that around half are now making more use of remote, international workers, with 25% saying this alleviated skills shortages, 50% saying it somewhat eased their skills shortages, and 25% saying it did not address their skills challenges.
To counter the risk of losing their skilled workers to international firms, 16% said they were offering employees more flexibility, and 50% were improving skills development and experience opportunities.
Prof Dwolatzky comments: “This indicates that there are still opportunities in the local market, and that employers value their employees. The remote, borderless world of work appears to have both benefits and disadvantages for employers. Among them are that having a workforce working from anywhere reduces overheads, and for international firms there are cost benefits in paying South Africans local market related salaries.
“It also opens new markets – if you have a remote workforce all over the world, they are potentially closer to some of your customers. Environmentally, it’s more sustainable to cut the travel and carbon footprint, and there are also societal benefits – people stay in their communities where they are socially comfortable.
“The disadvantages of distributed teams are that it can be harder to maintain human contact; and there is a risk of burnout when people working remotely work harder and longer hours.”
Schofield says remote and gig work raised concerns around workplace training and experience: “We place great store on the value of professional experience. Skills and competencies are built on a foundation of knowledge applied in practice, and it’s often our peers and supervisors who help us iron out mistakes as we gain experience, and this environment allows the workplace to mitigate the risks that can happen. There are myriad cooperation tools and platforms available for remote workforces, but we aren’t all used to using them where it’s appropriate.”
Prof Dwolatzky agrees: “A lot of people gain skills on the job, and most employers invest some time and energy in growing the skills of their workforce. In a gig economy, we may find that those who have the superskills will get the work, and those who are still building their skills may be excluded and not grow in the job. If we are ever to grow our skills pool in South Africa, we need to grow people on the job. This is what concerns me about the gig economy – if we are just pulling in skills from all over the world, what happens to our local skills base?”
Schofield notes that the local ICT skills base could be further eroded by international demand in a borderless world of work. “For example in Australia, there are around 25-million people and they expect to have 1,2-million ICT practitioners by 2027; but this is not enough to meet growing demand.
“South Africa has more than twice that population but only 1% of our population is engaged in ICT. We need to close that gap, but even more than that – if Australia is seeking 300 000 more people to add to its ICT workforce, they will look over here.”
Prof Dwolatzky adds that the new environment will likely drive a need for different skills. “Curiosity has been named as one attribute people will need, but I think people also need the skill of taking ownership of their own learning. If a company isn’t investing in your learning and future, you have to acquire the skill to grow yourself.
“The same digital platforms that make remote work possible, also make remote learning possible, so people need to take ownership of their own skills development to compete in this environment,” he says.
The 2022 JCSE-IITPSA ICT Skills Survey, which is currently underway, looks into what the new world of work means for IT practitioners and employers, and whether hybrid working policies are widening or narrowing the ICT skills gap within South African organisations. The survey closes on 30 July with results to be released in October.
ICT practitioners and employers are urged to contribute to the survey to add to this important research. To participate, go to https://va.eduflex.com/jcse/login