Written by Ilva Pieterse and published on iWeek, Wednesday, 24 October 2012.
The economic downturn, skills education and training, corporate social investments, and foreign investments have all had an influence on the IT skills issue in SA, in different ways.
According to Wesley Lynch, CEO of Realmdigital, the economic downturn has improved the skills issue in SA. “There were a significant amount of South Africans from Europe that came back. England, in particular, was worse hit than other regions and a lot of technical and IT skills individuals returned. We’ve had more people coming back than ever before, but we have not seen that volume translated to a reduction of costs.”
Jacques Lombaard, head of BPO development at Innovation Group, agrees that significant job losses in Europe and the UK during the economic downturn seem to have forced many skilled South Africans working abroad to return. “In the last 12 months, a number of CVs falling into this category have crossed my desk. This, as well as largescale redundancies due to restructuring in our local market, has probably aggravated the problem somewhat. Despite this, attracting top talent remains a challenge, with the cream of the crop in disciplines such as C# still demanding salaries comparable to the earnings of their European counterparts.”
Charlene Grice, recruitment specialist at Innovation Group, supports this statement, saying SA is currently experiencing a major skills shortage, especially in the IT development field, where it is becoming more and more difficult to find qualified and experienced developers specialising in specific development languages like C# and Java.
“Highly skilled IT professionals have become even more sought after, as companies have had to be very selective with regards to the skills they take on, due to reduction in headcount intakes (reduction in overall budget always has a direct impact on headcount numbers),” explains Carmen Short, human resources manager at Avanade South Africa.
“This has caused a challenge on its own, as companies are now focused on paying premium salaries for top skills and not growing their junior/medium level skills due to smaller headcount allowances. Graduate and internship programmes/intakes have been reduced and therefore reducing the pipeline of skills feeding into organisations and directly placing more of a focus on competent, expert skills.”
Greg Vercellotti, executive director at Dariel Solutions, believes one way for learning institutions to help deal with the IT skills issue is by starting to engage with the industry to ensure they are teaching industry-relevant information. “We are currently seeing that a lot of students are not being taught the right information, and it’s affecting them when they enter the industry – book smart versus street smart is entirely different, and while both are essential in the industry, if you’re armed with outdated theoretical knowledge, the learning curve when entering the industry is very steep,” he says.
Lombaard agrees, saying more collaboration between businesses and educational institutions is required. “It is important to create awareness and understanding of where graduates lack, and to revisit curriculums and teaching methodologies to address it accordingly. Most employers cannot afford to spend time teaching graduates the basic principles of disciplines such as OO-programming – we expect the fundamentals to be instilled already.”
According to Short, educational facilities need to focus not only on imparting technical skills to their students, but as importantly, on their softer skills. “We see many candidates who have qualified with an IT qualification, but who struggle with the softer skills – communication, workplace skills, interpersonal skills, etc. There also needs to be a focus on applied thinking – many students can answer interview questions directly related to a theory they have learnt, but cannot take this knowledge and apply it to something similar.” She believes there is a lack of “out-of-the-box” thinking seen at the junior levels. “We need to consider more adequate bridging or internship courses, where key aspects are addressed in assisting the student to become more workplace ready and confident.”
According to Anja Hartman-Weitz, HR director at Softline VIP (part of the Sage Group), the skills issue can also be assisted by making a difference in the community. “As part of VIP’s social responsibility, we have a Life & Business Skills Training Programme that runs the during school holidays. The aim of the project is to give grades 10, 11 and 12 pupils exposure to computers and focus on general skills such as assertiveness, conflict handling and communications. We help the grade 12 pupils to design a CV and provide tips for interviews; we also provide some information on business acumen and what is appropriate in a working environment.”
Vercellotti also believes in fostering corporate social investment programmes that focus on education. “Education is an essential cornerstone to any economy, and as such, has a direct impact on skills development in the country. Although statistics recently released by Stats SA (August 2012) mention that the unemployment rate dropped to 24.9% from 25.2% in Q1 2012, the numbers are still high, with approximately 4.5 million South Africans still actively looking for work – indicative of the work that still needs to be done.”
He says the reality is that it cannot be done by the public sector alone. “Businesses need to step in and assist to ensure that the IT sector continues to grow locally, becoming a hub for foreign direct investment, best practices and innovation.”
“It all starts with basic education,” Lombaard agrees. “Companies and qualified professionals alike need to become more involved in the education of these prospective students, whether through social responsibility programmes or other platforms.”
Lynch suggests IT companies help the skills situation by implementing internships. “The IT industry has not embraced internships properly, or as well as other industry sectors have,” he says.
According to Chris Lamprecht, group executive of human resources at The Jasco Group, SA faces a significant challenge regarding skilled labour in the workforce future, particularly in the IT sector. “Developing these skills, especially the relevant ones, is an ongoing effort,” she points out.
Hartman-Weitz says there is no quick fi x to the skills situation in SA. “Companies have a responsibility to get involved in projects which will have a lasting effect. At VIP Payroll, we have been involved in training sessions at various learning institutions, such as the Tshwane University of Pretoria, where we present a 10-day training course at a reduced price. These training sessions not only help students to get practical exposure to certain topics, but gives our employees an opportunity to influence students in SA,” she says.
“Retention is a hot topic today, and employers need to understand what it is that keeps each of their employees engaged, and ultimately what drives them,” says Short. “Companies need to find ways to connect with their employees, be it individually, in a group forum or via a pulse survey, and listen to the feedback, understand what their needs are and address them. This might sound simplistic, but the truth is most companies that have frequent engagement with their junior staff tend to keep them longer.”
Vercellotti says finding, growing and retaining the right people has becoming increasingly difficult, especially due to the accelerating pace of globalisation, as well as the impending shortage of skills. “As such, human resources, training and development are becoming increasingly complex, yet an ever more important process. For it is only with the right people that a company can share a common goal and have the motivation and skill to reach their vision.”
Lynch suggests companies offer bursaries, subsidise courses, or invest in training as part of staff contracts to grow their own skills and invest it back into the company. “The company can create corporate structures that see that highly skilled staff have profi t share or equity within businesses, particularly early stage, hi-tech businesses.”
According to Hartman-Weitz, employee engagement should be a key factor in staff retention. “Employee engagement is something that lies very close to my heart,” she says. “If an organisation believes it to be its biggest assets, they then have no choice other than to have a strategy in place to find out what makes employees loyal. It is not only about having ‘happy employees’, but about getting a return on the human capital investment. If you know what makes an employee loyal, you can align HR policies and practices with those employee drivers to increase employee engagement.”
Grice says in the current economic climate, companies are increasingly aware of the importance of retaining qualified and knowledgeable development staff, but are more often than not implementing the wrong types of techniques to retain these talented employees. “A key example is where trained development staff are being required to sign training clauses which state that they will be responsible for refunding any training amount should they leave the employ of the company before a certain amount of time has lapsed. Rather than focus on negative retention techniques, companies should place more focus on positive retention techniques, including reward and recognition. More and more employees are stressing the importance of being recognised for their contribution to not only the team they work in, but also the company as a whole.”
She believes another important aspect of retaining qualified staff is to ensure any remuneration package is in line with the industry standard. “Companies and recruiters need to be aware of current industry standards and what constitutes market related remuneration packages. If companies fail to take notice of industry standards and current remuneration packages, they run the risk of losing valuable members of staff who will find alternative companies who are willing, and able, to offer market related remuneration packages.”
Finally, she says, many companies have started outsourcing their development requirements to offshore companies like India as a major cost saving exercise. “Although feasible from a cost perspective, companies need to be aware of some of the challenges that this option has, which include time zone differences, communication barriers, etc.”
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Says Lombaard: “Many companies have opted to outsource work to countries like India and Pakistan. Although skills are more cost-effective in comparison with our local market, cultural and language barriers remain major considerations.” He believes smart companies will look to snap up the well-rounded individuals with good technical abilities and soft skills who have mastered the English language as well. “Local resources will have to up their game to remain competitive, and in the long run, the impact should be positive for employers in terms of value for money,” he says.
Lynch agrees that foreign skills play an ever increasing role in the local skills shortage. “India, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Eastern Europe are all popular outsourcing locations in the world and in SA. There is a large amount of financial services in SA that is outsourced to India. Previously it started out as a price competitive advantage, which is no longer true; now it is because there is a much larger collection of niche skills in India to go around, such as enterprise and mobile.” He says foreign skills are often a core component of many companies, and they cannot function without them.
According to Short, companies often look to bring in experienced IT skills over as a quick fix for skills gaps and shortages in their workplace, and the initial intention is always to have these highly skilled experts train up and provide skills transfer to their local team.
“However, the challenge is that this is a rather costly exercise and not a quick fix, as some organisations assume it to be. For any skills transfer/succession programme to be effective, there needs to be significant time invested and at least one to two years of handson knowledge transfer and experiential learning for adequate knowledge upskill and intake. At times, this long-term invaluable investment is overlooked as too costly, and organisations rather focus on short-term solutions that might address the pressing, urgent issue at hand, hiring short-term costly contractors, and as a result, not focusing on long-term, sustainable skills development solutions at all levels,” she says.
According to Vercellotti, there continues to be many developments globally in the IT industry, and SA can benefit from some of these methods of working that have proven effective. “These skills can be maximised for in-house training, as employees derive more benefit from it, as in some cases and in some fields we can learn a lot from our international counterparts. However, adapting these and making them locally relevant, of course, is key.”