Specialist skills gap widens

Lise Hagen

Lise Hagen,New technologies require a significant mind-shift for employers and employees alike.

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Cloud computing, social media, big data and mobility are challenging organisations and demanding more specialist ICT skills than ever before. These technology mega-trends are affecting businesses of all types and sizes across SA, giving a competitive advantage to those who can capitalise on them, while putting those who ignore them in danger of closing their doors.

At the same time, a dearth of these specialist skills is causing major challenges for local organisations, because, while the skills remain in high demand, the skills gap widens – a problem magnified in SA, where technical education falls short. This is resulting in many businesses being forced to either look for highly-trained international recruits to plug holes in their workforce, or to limit the speed at which they can innovate and grow.

Innovation leads to shortage

Lise Hagen, research manager: Software and IT Services Africa for International Data Corporation (IDC), says: “We need to take into account the interaction between internal organisational and external market factors when considering ICT skills training. In many organisations, employees have been getting the job done through manual processes or workarounds, infused with deep and long-term familiarity of the company or industry.”

The majority of organisations do not harvest this employee know-how, resulting in knowledge capital walking out the door as people switch jobs, retire, or move on to greener pastures, says Hagen. Markets are moving at a rapid pace, competition is fierce, and customers are fickle.

Challenging economic prospects threaten job security for many South Africans. Thus, there is often resistance, both bottom up and top down, to change the way in which things are done. However, changing the way things are done, or implementing new technologies just for the sake of doing so, will not benefit the organisation, says Hagen. They need to be done bearing in mind skills development, business strategy, technological developments, IT security assessments and competitive environment.

Hagen says advanced skills, whether technological or domain expertise, will remain in high demand – this is a global trend, magnified in many African countries that have a legacy skills gap.

Forward-looking organisations across the continent address the skills demand through training. However, on average, not enough organisations are adequately harnessing hard and soft skills training for their overall workforce. Highly-skilled individuals are also very expensive, and there needs to be a much bigger and more aligned effort from private and public institutions, including businesses and educational organisations, to address this disparity. Throwing money or training alone at the problem might be a short-term solution, but it is not really sustainable without the soft skills training and input from industry to back it up.

“Innovations and emerging technologies like cloud computing, big data and mobility are putting a further strain on the already dire skills shortage in South Africa,” says Madelise Grobler, MD of Bytes People Solutions, who notes this is being compounded by the explosion of electronic devices both in the workplace and in personal lives.

Another trend in the industry is the need for more specialised skills, which, unfortunately, are scarce, she observes. There is even more need to address competency in certain jobs, not just the skill itself. This means organisations must take a competency approach with regards to their training needs. “A competency-based approach to training is developed around any competency standards that have been identified for a specific job or role,” says Grobler. “To be assessed as competent, over and above being having the ‘skill’ in question, an individual needs to be able to demonstrate the ability to perform a role’s specific tasks.”

Training in Africa

When speaking of how the African continent differs from its global counterparts in terms of skills and training, Hagen says the context has to be carefully considered. “Different geographies across the globe have different macroeconomic drivers. Different countries, industries, and organisations in Africa are at different stages of technology adoption, requiring different strategies. A key difference between countries on the African continent and the other global regions lies in demographics. Overall, Africa has the lowest average age, but it is also plagued by high youth unemployment. Other regions have a much higher average population age, and have to rely on automation to get things done. African organisations are driven to create value-adding jobs, and not just create manual labour.”

Many companies across various industries are turning to process automation in order to improve efficiencies and diminish their reliance on a human workforce, she says. “This does not necessarily mean a dehumanisation of the workforce, but it does mean that there are many, many workers who will have to widen their skills base in order to adapt to the changing working environment.”

Cloud top of mind

Loraine Vorster, VP business development Africa/ ANZ at CompTIA, says: “CompTIA has seen training partners having a growth explosion and others close their doors the last year. In my opinion, those that grow are more proactive, always creative in their offerings, and most importantly, constantly listen to their customers’ needs to ensure they meet them. We have also seen the number of complaints about fly-bynight providers dwindling, which I hope means there are either less of them or consumers are becoming cleverer in selecting a training provider.”

Vorster says CompTIA recently unveiled Cloud+ and Mobility+ certifications, as those are the areas it sees the most interest in from employers and IT professionals. “The biggest new IT buzzword this last year has to be ‘cloud’, though. There is certainly a lot of hype and interest, but as always, South Africa takes a while to really adopt new technology despite early offerings from many local companies. We are working with our premier partners to ensure they are ready to meet these requirements.”

Another area that remains in focus, but is still not taken seriously enough, says Vorster, is security. CompTIA’s Security+ remains its fastest growing certification for the last three years and it recently added a high-level security credential to its offering, she adds. With the US Military being CompTIA’s biggest customer for security certifications and being involved in the development, it needed to offer a vendor-neutral credential with a lot of credibility.

Grobler says there has been an uptake in the demand for hybrid cloud solutions, especially from companies like Citrix, VMware and Microsoft Azure, as well as for ITIL and COBIT framework skills.

A blended approach

According to Grobler, companies are still talking more about the 70/20/10 principle of education and managing innovation. The model entails that organisations need to see 70% of their employees getting training on the job, 20% through coaching, mentoring and workplace integration, and the remaining 10% via classroom training. As employees are spending more time away from the workplace, she notes blended learning is also in demand. A blended learning programme is one that utilises more than one model of learning delivery for a personalised and impactful learning experience.

In SA, she notes, there is also a strong need for alignment with unit standards in as far as training is concerned. This is important from a BEE scorecard perspective, she explains.

Grobler believes all these trends are challenging the ICT training industry, which is still stuck with traditional training methods. There is a need for change management to address these challenges and meet the modern day realities, she urges.

Too much choice

Vorster says there is also the issue of offering more courses than can reasonably be managed. “I am constantly surprised as we meet with training partners at the sheer number of training courses they offer, some in the hundreds. I sympathise with their sales staff as this is a huge challenge for them to stay on top of these offerings and ensure they provide their customers with the best solution. I am pleased to see that some training providers are cutting down on the number of courses they offer, choosing only those that make business sense, but there are still some who need to address this more effectively.”

Vorster adds there are a few very large ICT training providers that dominate the market today. These providers are well-established and have a proven track record in the industry. “This makes it very difficult for other providers to grow and grab some of the market share.”

In addition, she says CompTIA is seeing a growing number of ICT employers open up commercial training divisions, or simply keep their training and certification in-house. “Employers normally do this to save costs or drive new revenue for themselves, but this takes away revenue from the training providers. Training providers can still be involved in this process and get revenue if they are creative in their offerings, such as providing a trainer at a lower cost, offering short workshops or exam prep sessions, to name a few.”

To address these challenges, she says the CompTIA Authorized Partner Program (CAPP) sets high standards for training providers offering training towards CompTIA certifications. “We look at aspects like trainer qualifications and competency, quality course content, independent student feedback and student results, to name a few. It is important to ensure that individuals that study with your centre are qualified and prepared for the workplace.

With modern techniques and tools at hand, certification examinations such as those offered by CompTIA, Microsoft, Cisco and others, are able to test for real knowledge and experience.”

To meet today’s skills challenges, Bytes People Solutions uses a combination of technology solutions, says Grobler. The services include an assessment centre, content development, business process outsourcing, online technologies, people consulting, soft skills development and ICT learning solutions.

The company also offers a real-time classroom environment at its headquarters in Midrand, which allows people in Durban and Cape Town to participate in live instructor-led training programmes run from the centre. Learners can see and hear the facilitator, interact in group discussions with other participants, and receive assistance when doing labs.

The real-time training environment comprises videoconferencing equipment and an interactive whiteboard. “We had to do things differently because the skills gap is widening in South Africa,” Grobler concludes. 

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