The good, the bad and the opportunities for ICT skills in SA

Adrian Schofield, IITPSA

The new ICT Skills Survey is out: what did it find?

While South Africa’s ICT skills gap persists, this doesn’t necessarily mean employment opportunities for seasoned veterans. However, this situation may well present significant business opportunities for ICT professionals.

This is according to the authors of the 2021 ICT Skills Survey carried out by Wits University’s Joburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE) in partnership with the Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa (IITPSA).

The survey, the 11th since 2008 and the first since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, assessed what impact the pandemic and lockdown have had on working conditions and skills supply and demand in South Africa. It found that specialised skills gaps remain, the gig economy is not taking off yet, and that the local ICT sector adapted well to the remote and hybrid work environment.

But while the survey did not indicate major changes in ICT skills supply and demand and the way in which ICT practitioners work at this stage, the study’s authors, Adrian Schofield, production consultant at the IITPSA, and Professor Barry Dwolatzky, director of the JCSE, believe change is coming.

Skills demand – but not for veterans

Where the survey indicates thousands of vacancies in certain fields, Schofield says he has had feedback indicating that highly experienced ICT practitioners are not being considered for these roles. “The pipeline of suitable young candidates is inadequate, yet ICT veterans, particularly men who are not B-BBEE candidates, can find it difficult to secure employment in the current market,” he says.

This could be in part due to inflated salaries offered to graduates, who are then repeatedly poached at ever-higher salaries, until they become too expensive. ICT practitioners could price themselves out of the market in as little as 10 years, say Schofield and Dwolatzky.

Real-sizing of ICT salaries

“It’s a fairly hungry job market where people with good skills do get poached and offered bigger salaries to move. Our Wits graduates all get snapped up, and even hooked into bursaries that ensure that they join companies that need those skills. But because of the high demand, many of them are paid more than what is realistic for an entry-level person. In certain categories, new hires can start at R40 000 per month,” says Dwolatzky.

And due to current demand and hiring practices, the right ICT skills might quickly move up the ranks into management roles, where their technical skills are no longer needed, exacerbating the skills shortage and demand.

Barry Dwolatzky, JCSE Barry Dwolatzky, JCSE
Schofield and Dwolatzky believe that employers may need to right-size salaries and practitioners will have to start trimming their expectations to address skills gaps and ensure that more qualified people are employed.

Offshoring and foreign competition

While salary expectations are high within South Africa, the same cannot be said for other regions of the world, where highly specialised skills are available at a fraction of the cost. South African organisations that have become comfortable with remote workforces are likely to harness more of these in future, eroding the opportunities for local practitioners.

Dwolatzky says that his recent efforts to source support for a website attracted a flood of responses from India, and very few from South Africa. “The organisation in India was very competent and helpful, at a price around a quarter of that quoted by local organisations. So one can understand why local companies will be looking abroad,” he says.

Schofield adds that foreign professionals are also flocking to South Africa for work. “We still get large numbers of applicants for critical skills visas, many of them for offshore companies that have local operations and that find it productive to bring in skills from overseas. Another category is African migrants – with significant numbers coming from Nigeria and Zimbabwe.

“The competition comes from the fact that some categories of practitioners are available from outside of South Africa, and they can be ‘plugged in and switched on’,” he says. “The locally produced pipeline comes with some qualifications, but they are generally not workready, so companies taking them on will have to invest in getting them work-ready, knowing they could be poached.”

Jobs vs tasks

The changing market and growing competition pave the way for a gig economy, in which practitioners complete tasks rather than have jobs, adds Dwolatzky.

“This word ‘job’ so permeates our culture, and people define themselves by the jobs they have. But we will see change in the future. Instead of having a ‘job’ defined by attendance at a workplace for a number of hours a day, work will become a series of tasks or ‘gigs’. The real gig economy is happening in systems like Uber, and in informal and township economies. ICT lends itself to the gig economy, where gigs could be done from anywhere in the world,” he says.

While a gig economy would present more competition for locals, it also offers them new global opportunities. “It cuts both ways – a person here could be selling work anywhere in the world. But you have to learn to be entrepreneurial and sell yourself. It’s a very crowded marketplace, so you have to stand out somehow,” he says.

ICT skills platforms to emerge

Adapting to a gig economy may demand a new mindset and new approaches, but could offer local practitioners and entrepreneurs a range of new opportunities. Says Dwolatzky: “It’s quite a big jump to go from secure jobs to ensuring you have marketable skills and selling them on a market platform.

Adds Schofield: “The culture of a job is still solidly entrenched in people’s minds, but the change will come, and the facilitation work won’t be done through HR and recruitment firms, but through work brokers who get hold of the tasks available and match them to people who are able to complete those. We need to prepare people for that culture even at junior level, so they understand when leaving the education pipeline that they might not receive salary slips and might be paid per task in future. Those leaving the employment pipeline at the other end will have to learn to be willing to have their services sold on their behalf, and trim their expectations accordingly."

Dwolatzky says that unlike platforms such as Uber, there are opportunities to reinvent gig economy platforms to cut out foreign brokers and bring the benefits home: “A group at the University of the Western Cape law department is currently looking at the gig economy model for domestic workers, in which the workers will cooperatively own the platform and all the benefits and proceeds come to them. There’s no reason why we can’t create similar local platforms providing work in the digital economy.”