South Africa is blessed with highly talented IT people, and our skills are as good as those you’d find anywhere in the world. While this is great validation, it ironically also represents a massive risk for our local industry.
By Paul Morgan, business unit lead for data, planning and analytics at Altron Karabina
Our skills are in such high demand that it is becoming increasingly difficult to hold onto senior resources as the world literally comes knocking on their door.
If we do not act now to build the skills pool we may well wake up in five years’ time to find that we have no senior resources left. By way of example, I manage a team of 80 highly skilled IT people – among the most skilled and experienced in the country. Despite this high number, at any given point in time, I could still do with up to 20% more people to manage the demand from Johannesburg and Pretoria alone, never mind the rest of South Africa and other regions around the world.
Beyond doing everything we can to be the most attractive employer, and we do very well at Altron Karabina at retaining and attracting talent, the whole country must think creatively and work swiftly to address the skills shortfall which is unsustainable.
On the other side of the divide, we have a breathtakingly high unemployment rate that disproportionately affects young people. The numbers are astronomical – of those under 35 years old, two-thirds are unemployed. If you lower the number to those under 25, three quarters don’t have a job. Somewhere between the acute skills shortage and the mountain of unemployment, there has to be a way to balance the scales so that we can start working towards addressing the problem. No doubt, many great minds are thinking of ways this can be achieved, but at least one, practical measure for us all to make a difference is a lot closer than we may think and it lies with challenging our suppliers.
I have lived in South Africa for 24 years, having moved here with technical skills that enabled me to work in a host of different IT projects with organisations of all shapes and sizes in the public and private sectors. Over those 24 years, only one client ever looked me in the eye and asked what I was doing to address youth unemployment. One.
This client asked me at the start of the project to bring in at least one junior resource – someone that didn’t yet have experience – so that they could work within a project team on a real project, grow as a person and start their journey towards becoming a senior resource.
It may well be that there is a real or perceived resistance to do this. Everyone wants the A-team working on their projects. Everyone wants senior resources, and everyone wants peace of mind knowing that their important work is being done by someone who has done this before. However, that must be read against the reality that in South Africa, each and every one of those senior resources will receive a phone call or email from recruiters in the UK, US, Canada, Australia, Dubai, and many more. Perhaps the temptation of hard currency, overseas adventure or emigration will become too much. And so, as these highly skilled people go, one by one, who is filling their spots? Without a plan to fill the gaps they leave behind, the scales are never going to balance.
Challenge your suppliers. Ask them at the start of a project: What are you doing about youth unemployment in South Africa? Is there not a chance you can employ a junior, someone less experienced, to come in as part of the project team, so that you can help them grow into a senior resource over time?
Let’s be clear – no one is suggesting dropping off an unqualified child, taking the payment and running off. We are talking about post-graduate, skilled young people who are in need of experience. If this sounds unpalatable, think about the last time your organisation underwent an audit. The audit industry, which is mature, makes use of a fair number of educated but fairly junior auditors who work in a larger team, mentored by seniors and those with more experience. Over time, these juniors start filling the roles of the seniors and the process starts again.
If every organisation challenges every IT supplier to do that we may just have a chance to start balancing the scales. If everyone can employ just one extra junior resource as part of their project teams, in five years’ time we will have grown the skills base because the juniors will have become seniors and continue to deliver on excellent projects.
On the other hand, if we don’t give a chance to educate and supervise junior resources, they will remain junior and in five years’ time when many of the seniors have left the country, there will only be juniors left to deliver on projects.
We have an opportunity to start doing something now that can make a difference on two counts: it will help address a crippling skills shortage in the IT industry and it will provide young people with an opportunity to work and gain invaluable experience. Internships are one thing, bringing juniors into real projects is how they will develop into seasoned seniors.
It requires bravery in the sense that it’s a new concept in the IT industry, but it does not require blind faith because while a resource may be classified as junior, it does not detract from their efficiency nor education or skill. Everyone is talking about the talent tsunami and the great resignation, but the question is: what are you doing about it? What are you doing about youth unemployment? It’s time to challenge all your suppliers: hire a junior and let’s develop new talent for the next five years.