South Africa faces an increasing shortage of digital skills, driven in part by an insufficient focus on ICTs at school level, which prevents many students from pursuing a career in IT.

By Simon Campbell-Young

In addition, the sector is experiencing rapid changes and shifts, as technologies such as big data, the Internet of Things (IoT), and the cloud are driving innovation within the industry.

The majority of employers in the IT, digital, and communications services sectors agree that their industry is facing a skills gap, and that the education system is falling way short when it comes to meeting the needs of businesses. There is also a lack of understanding among parents, students and teachers about the opportunities within the ICT arena, which in part, has also led to the skills dearth.

Exposing students to ICT so they may become familiar with its uses and possibilities is crucial, but it’s not happening on a level that is widespread enough to be effective. This, coupled with the lack of improvement in South Africa’s basic education is still a huge concern.

At the same time, businesses of all types and sizes are moving towards digital transformation, and are looking for ways to be innovative to stay ahead of the pack. Advancements in the industry are creating massive opportunities for businesses to be innovative, but skills are needed to fuel this innovation.

The big challenge is skills. We need a lot more skills to become truly competitive in a very competitive world. Everyone sees Africa as being a strong emerging economy, with huge growth potential and opportunities, but in truth, we are lagging due to a very limited number of graduates in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. Government has attempted to address this shortage through several initiatives, but these are also either failing, or falling short.

There is also the perception among students that technology roles are better suited to boys, which is damaging the industry. There needs to be better collaboration between schools, technikons and universities to improve careers advice and the curricular and extra-curricular opportunities available to students.

Ultimately, we need our youth to view technology and related applied sciences as fantastic opportunity for a varied and successful career. For those who have the right ICT skills, the opportunities are endless. We need to ensure all our children are equipped and ready for the digital revolution. Not just a select few.

A lack of digital skills is effectively locking out a huge percentage of our youth from the myriad opportunities that ICT brings. We need to give our students, and particularly those entering the workforce, the tools they need to thrive and succeed. By doing this, we can develop South Africa’s knowledge economy, and guarantee a solid pipeline of skilled graduates to fill the skills gap.

We need to scrutinise the skills we are teaching at school and varsity level, and develop curricula that are properly aligned with what our companies need. At the same time, schools and universities must invest in the technologies they need to ensure that not only are students learning in a way that works for them, but at the same time, building those critical technology and digital capabilities from a young age.

And, once those skilled individuals enter the workforce, we need to nurture them. Gone are the days when a company had enough skills to go around. Today’s businesses suffer from a skills feast or famine, with projects dictating how many hours people work, resulting in either over- or under-working individuals. What is needed is a more reliable system, where we can ensure the right skills are in the right place, at the right time.