OPINION: The South African IT skills conundrum, a matter of perception

A recent report published by IDG Connect, a division of International Data Group (IDG), states that the perception amongst 130 IT professionals surveyed in South Africa is that there is a lack of IT skills in the country. It is already calling it a crisis.

Yet it is difficult to take the views, opinions or perceptions of only 130 IT professionals working in South Africa as fact, taking into consideration that some large and listed IT companies in the country employ well over 2,000 IT professionals each, making 130 people in some cases a meagre unit of their entire operations.

Be that as it may, it doesn’t take away the perception that there is a shortage of skills.

But is there a shortage of skills? Or rather, is there a shortage of relevant skills? Even further, is there an unwillingness to employ certain kinds of IT professionals educated and developed in South Africa?

Establishing answers to the above would require extensive research involving many times more than the 130 professionals surveyed by IDG Connect in their “Tomorrow’s CIO: Perceptions of the South African IT industry”report. It would further require the gathering of data from educational institutions tabulating the number of graduates in IT-related studies, analyse this against the available jobs in the market and reach a relatively accurate conclusion.

What is certain is that South Africa produces thousands of trained students each year in various fields within IT. This is evident not only in traditional universities but also in the number of “IT colleges” and IT training companies that have sprung up across the country.

This then leads to a question stated earlier, is there perhaps a shortage of relevant IT skills in South Africa? A quick survey of these IT colleges reveals most are offering courses such as A+ (PC Technician) and N+ (Network Technician), and that only a handful of these colleges or training companies (including universities) offer training in skills that are complex and highly in demand such as Business Analysis, Mobile Development and Software Testing.

Many IT “qualified” students in South Africa’s townships sit with these college certifications and struggle for years on end to get jobs, not because they are unskilled or unwilling to be skilled but rather because they have qualified in the “wrong” skills.

Given that most IT skills are a commodity these days, their demand and wages related to them diminish as quickly as a new technology is introduced or their demand dwindles. For example, being qualified as a PC Technician in a world of tablets, smartphones and maybe laptops is not really a highly sought-after skill or a skill you would be well paid for. So there is definitely a need for more IT professionals trained and skilled in relevant skills.

The other question raised is whether there is an unwillingness to employ certain kinds of IT skills educated and developed in South Africa. Let me be more blunt, is there an unwillingness to employ black IT graduates in IT positions relevant to their qualifications and experience?

Just like the IDG Connect report, I can only pass judgement based on my own fifteen years of experience in South Africa’s IT industry and the perception of other IT professionals. Depending who you ask, the answer is either a resounding YES or a resounding NO, and both are a matter of perception.

There is one view that says that South Africa’s IT industry is historically dominated by white males and continues to be such. As such they (white male IT professionals) continue to protect their jobs and only hire and promote those who have relatively the same amount as melanin as them. Once again, it’s anecdotal and an opinion because we sit with no data. This could be the age-old generational debate (as highlighted by Adrian Schofield — Manager, Applied Research Unit, Johannesburg Centre for Software Engineering at Wits University — in the report when highlighting the question of work ethic), with younger people feeling that older people are discriminating against them because of age, but because of South Africa’s apartheid history race is thrown into the mix.

What is a fact and has not been corrected even post apartheid is the level of Mathematics and Science education at primary and secondary school level in South Africa. Many reports have highlighted how badly SA fairs in comparative student studies in maths and science, not only amongst similar countries globally but in Africa too.

The above then partly fuels the other side of this perception, which is that black graduates despite being qualified have “inferior” levels of education, despite having the required certificates and qualifications, and therefore are not skilled and will not be employed.

The SA IT skills matter is a conundrum, one that is further muddled by reports such as the IDG Connect one, without digging deeper into facts. Albeit, it is a solvable conundrum if the focus is placed on correcting perceptions through facts and addressing the issue of relevant IT skills.

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