Strategies to stop the IT brain drain

Glenda Daniels

More than 50% of young information technology experts in South Africa want to leave the country, a recent survey shows. And the International Labour Organisation says the IT skills gap worldwide will triple over the next couple of years, with a predicted 1,6-million jobs in Europe alone unfilled by next year.

South African IT experts are seeking to address the chronic shortage of expertise in the industry through new staff-retention strategies while the government is relaxing immigration controls to allow skilled technologists from India, for instance, to enter the country.

Meanwhile IT specialists in SA, even those who have just recently passed matric, continue to earn phenomenally high salaries and thousands are poached every year.

On average, the period for retaining IT staff is one year and 11 months and, according to the ITWeb Salary Survey, 54% of the 3788 respondents indicated a desire to leave South Africa: 34% cited better opportunities for exposure as their reason for leaving, and 20% mentioned economic reasons.

One of the confounding problems in the IT industry is that new technologies are being introduced faster than professionals are being recruited.

“Today, more so than ever, the accelerating pace of change continues to challenge a company’s competitive edge, with the demand for skilled developers outstripping the limited supply,” according to Netscope Training, part of Argil Ernst &Young.

“The global shortage of skilled IT professionals worldwide is showing no signs of abating for at least the next 10 years; and as companies are realising the cost of attracting and training new staff, employers are increasingly turning to staff-retention strategies,” says Elzaan Engelbrecht, manager of Total Media, which has done research on the IT industry. She says that “companies are now using staff-retention strategies such as offering higher salary packages, but experts agree that direct pay benefits are only a short-term solution. But while salaries and contract rates for IT professionals have increased dramatically, employees are motivated by a wide range of career issues aside from money.”

IT company Mosaic Software in Cape Town has successfully implemented staff-retention strategies, over and above increasing salaries, which resulted in a mere 3% staff turnover rate. The strategies include stock options in the company; working from remote locations and on flexitime; travelling opportunities; regular team-building exercises; and meetings of South Africans IT specialists with their United States, British and Australian counterparts.

Another Internet company, Johannesburg-based CS Holdings, says that young South Africans are increasingly having their silicon dreams shattered because of unresearched options in the Internet industry. MD Madelise Grobler says: “Companies are not only looking for people with the right certificate but for people with practical experience who can do the job.”

CS Holdings has begun to implement development strategies to combat head-hunting and the brain drain. “Young people in IT need ongoing guidance with regard to training, skills growth and career pathing, as business moves rapidly.”

While various strategies to prevent the IT brain drain are tested, salaries in the industry continue to be phenomenally high. In South Africa a 20-year-old with a matric and a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) certificate can walk into a job at R17 000 a month. The latest ITWeb Salary Survey shows that an MSCE qualification will net you R173000 a year, and level two R290000. A support analyst earns R156 000.

Competitive salaries appears to be the main reason for the chronic movement of IT specialists, but according to a PriceWaterhouseCoopers survey, the provision of development opportunities is believed to be the top method of retaining staff indicated by 92% of companies surveyed.

The survey covered three million employees, 1000 organisations and 29 countries. Other measures to retain staff included: improved working conditions (62%); increasing salaries (56%); changing organisation culture (54%), increasing bonus practices (50%); increasing fringe benefits (49%); correct job descriptions (36%); job enrichment programmes (22%). It was also found that “leadership development” doubled in importance as a key human resource issue from 1999 to last year (29% to 58%), yet only 3% of human-resource time is being spent in this area.

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