/ 12 May 2017

Bridging South Africa’s scarce skills gaps

Turning educated learners into employed adults means keeping up with the demands of the modern workplace.
Turning educated learners into employed adults means keeping up with the demands of the modern workplace.

There’s a rising realisation that degrees are not necessarily the key to employment and that cost-constrained employers are increasingly focusing on what return on investment the employee can offer them. This is both good news and bad news for job seekers. The bad news is that they are unlikely to land a job. The good news is that if they take the initiative to make themselves potentially valuable as employees, they will have something to offer in the job market — degree or no degree.

A prime place for job seekers to start is in the ICT arena. A major ICT skills shortfall is being experienced by companies across all fields. Aiming to improve customer experience through new mobile apps, better data analysis and stronger social media engagement, companies are urgently seeking coders, data scientists and social media strategists. For young people with initiative, these are all areas where knowledge and proven capability count for more than paper qualifications.

Paul Dunne, chief executive of the Digital Skills Academy — an international organisation offering postgraduate IT courses — says over the next five years, the most in-demand skills globally will include computational thinking, or the ability to manage data processed individually and identify patterns; computer programming and design skills, customer-centred digital design skills, new media literacy and digital innovation skills.

With Wi-Fi access and a smart device, almost anyone can learn the basics of coding, app development and the principles of data analysis, social media strategy and web design for free online. Paid-for certification courses are also available online for developers, tech support, systems support, web design, search engine optimisation (SEO) and more. These courses, ranging in duration from a few months to two years, typically cost significantly less than tertiary institution courses and pave the way for students to practise their newfound skills by offering services to friends and acquaintances while studying.

Dunne says businesses typically report a shortage of soft skills such as social and emotional intelligence and cross-cultural competency among IT graduates. “Unfortunately, many high-level IT graduates lack these soft skills, which can only be gained through practical training and experience of real world work experience and work environments.”

He notes that this is a common challenge around the world, citing the 2016 Workforce Skills Preparedness Report commissioned by Future Workplace and Payscale Inc. entitled ‘Levelling Up: How to Win In the Skills Economy’, which identified critical thinking and problem-solving as lacking or absent from graduates’ skillsets.

He believes that in the short term, demand will increase for people with strong negotiation skills, service orientation, adaptability and business acumen and agile project development and “agile-thinking” ability. Dunne believes hands-on training and learnerships will build the ICT skills pipeline and equip graduates with the necessary soft skills.

First-time job-seekers are up against a dual challenge, according to South African non-profit Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator. Millions lack both work experience and access to the networks that provide information about opportunities and introductions to the right people. Harambee is working to introduce young job seekers to the right networks, prepare them for the workplace, and provide them with valuable on-the-job experience in a programme backed by the government Jobs Fund and nearly 300 employers across the country. Even factors such as mock interviews and dressing for interviews are covered in the programme. To date, over one million assessments have been carried out and 30 000 job seekers have gained their first work experience through the programme.

In many sciences fields, ongoing efforts are being made to build a skills pipeline to help meet the sector’s growth ambitions. Professor Thandi Mgwebi, head of research at the University of the Western Cape and a long-standing player in the skills development arena, says she believes a number of factors contribute to skills shortfalls in the sciences. “For one thing, we need to strengthen the relationship between science and the public. This is a challenge the department of science and technology and a number of other government departments and industry are trying to address, through efforts to stimulate the science conversation. Other contributing factors are challenges in the basic education system, a lack of funding for postgraduate sciences students, and the need for a greater investment into research and development in South Africa.”

Another skills challenge in the sciences is the belief that one must study a degree course to enter science fields. “There are also certificate and diploma courses at technikons and colleges for a number of careers in the sciences sectors — for example water management and wastewater managers,” she notes.