Not too long ago, I read an alarming piece on how our technology skills shortage has changed from a valley into a canyon. The conclusion was that those who have the skills have become as rare a commodity as rhodium and can ply their trade anywhere. That leaves South Africa in a tough position, as we are competing in a global market for people who are versed in niche technology disciplines such as cloud technology, artificial intelligence and augmented reality.
As odd as it sounds, my immediate thoughts turned to the famous US daredevil motorcyclist Evel Knievel, who built his brand by jumping long and high canyons. He said: “I love the feeling of the fresh air on my face and the wind blowing through my hair.” Now, I am not for one moment suggesting we all go out and buy motorcycles, but we should try and see this current shortage as a chasm that we can cross collectively, and embrace the process with a feeling of positive expectation and feel positive winds blowing in our faces as we get it right.
The best place to start is to look at the global picture. Industry reports suggest that in the next ten years, millions of jobs could go unfilled because there are simply not enough people to fill them. If the trend continues, billions worth of revenues could be lost yearly unless more high-tech workers can be found.
Similarly, the Accenture research suggests that the cost of inaction is staggering. Over the next decade, fourteen G20 countries could miss as much as US$11,5 trillion of cumulative growth promised by intelligent technologies if they cannot meet future skills demand. That equates to forgoing more than an entire percentage point from their annual average GDP growth rate every year.
The question is how serious our tech skills shortage in South Africa is. The comprehensive 2021 JCSE-IITPSA ICT Skills Survey says the top-priority skills listed by employers participating in the survey were cybersecurity, big data analytics, DevOps, artificial intelligence, application development, data management, test automation/performance testing, Internet of Things and connectivity. The upshot of this data is that as digital adoption accelerates against a welcome backdrop of the democratisation of IT, tomorrow is too late, and we need to move with more speed than we thought we were capable of.
Working closely with a stream of young people who we bring into our business, there is no question we have the talent and the aptitude to embrace tech skills with creativity and an enthusiasm that knows no bounds. I believe that with a cooperative and collegial industry-wide strategy, we could, in time, become a significant supplier of tech skills to the global market, with a focus on bringing insourced jobs into Africa instead of relying on outsourcing tech project work.
The starting point is like-minded leaders and setting a target at the start of what will be a long jump over the canyon. If we could create ten thousand jobs in the tech space in the next five years, we would be a long way to achieving a successful landing on both wheels. Some estimates say South Africa has around 500 000 ICT employees, with 50% employed within the ICT sector. The other 50% are employed elsewhere and they contribute around 8% to our GDP. More skills development therefore has a direct impact on national growth.
A recent study conducted by Accenture suggested there were three ways to get the motorcycle moving. Experiential learning needs to be speeded up because it is immersive and hands-on. Learners are active participants, not passive recipients of knowledge.
Then the focus needs to shift from institutions to individuals. A more learner-centred approach would be to design metrics and incentives that encourage the blending of skills in each person. Furthermore, education and corporate lifelong learning systems must be accessible to all to truly close the skills gap. Workers who are vulnerable to disruption from technological change must be identified for targeted interventions.
I believe we have about a year to seriously recalibrate our thinking when it comes to tech skills; to seed the conversation more deeply; and to produce more industry-wide collective thinking. Failure to do so simply relegates us lower in the global competitiveness tables and we risk falling and not making it to the other side of that very bridgeable canyon.
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