Do we have enough ICT skills for the future?
Probably not, is the short answer. The real question is what the industry, and government, can do to ensure we build up the skills we need.
According to the 2011 IT Web-JCSE Skills Survey, two-thirds (66%) of companies from a wide range of industries are severely impacted by a shortage of ICT skills. International figures would certainly seem to back up this finding, with evidence that demand for ICT skills is not being met. This is unsurprising, given the way in which ICT has become the platform on which most, if not all, business now runs, with government catching up fast.
What’s of particular concern is that this shortage of skills seems likely to worsen. According to research conducted by Landelahni Business Leaders, while the number of computer science and engineering enrolments at South African universities has risen over the past decade, graduation rates have declined to 12.5%, compared to the international average of 25%.
This disconnect between the number who enrol and the number who actually graduate is by no means restricted to computer science and engineering—academics generally bemoan the lack of “throughput”. However, given the importance of these disciplines for our economic future, it’s time to raise the red flag. We should also remember that as an industry we have committed to creating 1 million jobs by 2020—possibly an unrealistic target, but we won’t come even close if we don’t have people with the right skills.
So what are the issues and, more important, what could we as an industry do about them?
The first issue is obviously that the supply of graduates with the right skills simply has to be increased. This is not purely a numbers game, and perhaps a long-term strategy would be for industry bodies to be mandated to work with the universities and technikons to bring syllabuses in line with industry needs. The industry also needs to provide students with career guidance at an early stage.
However, we need skills now—and, for many of us, internship programmes are an answer. Based on my own experience in running such a programme, I would argue that there are several challenges we need to overcome:
- One is the fact that smaller companies find it hard to compete for the best graduates. This is perhaps just how the world works, but given the research that suggests smaller companies drive economic growth and job creation, it’s worth thinking about. Perhaps the emerging cloud model will mean that smaller companies will be able effectively to “outsource” their ICT to cloud providers who, being large companies, are much more likely to attract the cream of the crop.
- A second challenge is the propensity of some interns to job hop in search of higher salaries. This can actually mean that they don’t get the full transfer of skills they need, and of course, it’s very frustrating for the company that offered the original internship. Retention strategies are key here, and that means being very clear about the return on investment that a successful intern offers and paying them accordingly. Of course, identifying which interns are going to prove to be great ICT professionals is critical, and professional help can be valuable.
- The final challenge is that of actually running an internship programme. Interns must be managed, mentored and exposed to the right variety of projects. It is a substantial commitment—once again, companies need to understand the levers that drive return on investment for an internship programme.
Given the impact of ICT on the economy plus government’s burning need to create a lot of sustainable new jobs, one would have thought that state funding could play an important role in helping to fund an ICT internship programme that would turn graduates into highly skilled ICT professionals.
The challenge of creating a pool of the right ICT skills is large, but large challenges are what South Africans—particularly in this industry—are good at. With the right help from government, we can do it.
* Adrian Schofield, 2011 JCSE-IT Web Skills Survey, published by the Joburg Centre for Software Engineering. Available from email@example.com.
** Research summary for the media: “Telecoms skills remains high despite stagnation”, 23 March 2012, accessible at http://www.landelahni.co.za/landelahni_news/Telecoms%20press%20release%20-%20March%202012.pdf