/ 4 October 2013

Don’t count on youngster to fill IT skills gap

Final year IT students Ryno Schoeman
Final year IT students Ryno Schoeman, Pieter Delport and Wonga Vika do not necessarily intend continuing in the IT field. (Tracy Burrows)

IT will underpin everything businesses do — from interacting with customers to ensuring cost-efficient, streamlined operations, to predicting changes in the market and adapting accordingly. Ultimately, this will mean that enterprises must grow their pool of top IT skills.

They will need network engineers, systems architects and integrators, highly skilled software developers, data analysts and business intelligence experts.

This expertise is generally expected to flow in from the millennials now emerging from colleges and universities.

However, this assumption may be flawed. South Africa’s millennials, much like millennials around the world, have a new approach to work life.

They will not necessarily remain loyal to a company, will move on to new opportunities rapidly and may even venture into completely new fields or open their own businesses.

A recent report by j2 Global noted that according to a recent Gallup poll, fewer Americans aged 18 to 29 worked full time for an employer in June 2013 (43.6%) than in June 2012 (47.0%), signalling that more millennials may have skipped the traditional job search and started out on their own as entrepreneurs.

More than half of millennials (54%) have started their own business or have the desire to start one as found in a recent report by the Kauffman Foundation.

A case in point is three of South Africa’s top networking students, who say they plan either to take their skills abroad or leave the industry altogether.

Speaking after this year’s international leg of the Cisco Networking Academy NetRiders networking skills competition, the top three Cisco Certified Network Associate Routing & Switching (CCNA) students said they did not expect to progress directly into networking jobs within South Africa, or planned to change direction altogether.

The students, all from the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) in Port Elizabeth, were among South Africa’s top five CCNA students.

The top three, Pieter Delport (23), Wonga Vika (21) and Ryno Schoeman (21), recently flew from Port Elizabeth to the Johannesburg offices of Cisco, to pit their networking skills against those of the top networking students in the Europe, the Middle East and Africa competition. Delport finished third in Africa.

Change in work attitude
While all three students are enthusiastic about their career choice, they believe their prospects are limited in South Africa. Delport intends to seek work abroad after graduating this year.

“I will probably try to find work somewhere like Dubai to gain more experience. I will go wherever there is an opportunity for me, and I get recognition for my work.”

With an interest in teaching, he believes he may even turn to training at some point in the future.

Vika and Schoeman intend to further their studies, completing their BTech (information technology: communication networks) degrees next year.

After that, Schoeman plans to seek work abroad too. If he returns, he says, he will base himself in a large city and seek employment at a major enterprise.

Although Vika intends to remain in South Africa, he plans to begin farming in the Eastern Cape in the long term.

With the Eastern Cape as his ancestral home, Vika wants to settle there, and he believes he has a better chance of making a good living by farming livestock than by working in networking.

The young networkers’ approach is in line with findings by numerous studies that millennials seek recognition and job satisfaction and cannot be expected to remain in the same job for many years the way earlier generations did.

With South Africa’s shortfall in key and high-end IT skills already a problem, many of the students who are completing degrees in the areas where the biggest lack is may not become available for employment in local enterprises.

“This is why enterprises have to take action now, to start to grow the skills pool from grassroots level,” says Murray de Villiers, general manager for the Africa Middle East academic programme at the SAS Institute.

Speaking on the sidelines of the SAS forum in Johannesburg this week, de Villiers said there was a huge deep shortfall of analytics skills in the industry, which would only become more pronounced in the years to come.

“I imagine that more than half of the students who graduate in the necessary fields will stay on and become available to local enterprises, but it is not enough.

“If enterprises want to ensure that have these higher order sciences skills, they need to step in to help grow them from grassroots level,” he says.

“This means taking action to support any of the excellent programmes to develop maths, science and language skills from a primary school level. The intervention is all the more effective if it targets teachers, because of the multiplier effect. But enterprises need to take action now – we have to feed the pipeline.”

Workforces lack soft skills
Echoing local sentiments that “soft” business skills are the key elements lacking in the quest for high-end skills, a new survey in the US found that most executives there feel the same way.

According to the State of the Economy and Employment Survey from Adecco Staffing US, 92% of senior executives in the US acknowledge there is a serious gap in workforce skills.

There was 44% of respondents who cited soft skills, such as communication, critical thinking, creativity and collaboration as the area with the biggest gap, while only 22% cited a lack of technical skills as the culprit for the US skills gap – with leadership (14%) and computer skills (12%) following behind.

The survey found that the majority (64%) of senior executives who believe there is a skills gap feel the greatest threat to US businesses is investment going to companies abroad instead of staying in the country and 34% believe the US gap in skills poses a threat to businesses research and development capabilities.

Janette Marx, senior vice president at Adecco Staffing US said: “Educational institutions may overlook these elements in today’s digital age, but schools must integrate both hard and soft skill sets into their curriculums, which in turn will help better prepare candidates and strengthen our country’s workforce.”