Rethinking South African IT skills development

The latest South African unemployment rate stands at 34.5%. However, the most concern lies within the youth demographic (people aged between 15 and 24) where the unemployment rate stands at a shocking 63.9%. Skills development takes on renewed importance within this context given the extent of the challenge the country is facing.

Government is certainly taking heed of the situation with the publishing earlier this year of a new critical skills list, the first update since 2014. Given how pervasive technology has become in all business operations regardless of company size or industry sector, it is not surprising to note how prominent ICT skills feature on this list. From data scientists and programmer analysts to ICT security specialists and network analysts, technology is a golden thread running through the skills most needed by local businesses.

As a company, Veeam is committed to helping address this with a focus on building relevant skill sets across digital transformation and security, amongst others. For us, it is about ensuring companies remain operational in the event of a disaster, whether that is man-made or natural.

The Veeam  Data Protection Trends Report 2022indicates that 78% of South African companies have a protection gap between how much data they can afford to lose and how often IT systems are protected. Considering that the research has also highlighted that 97% of businesses here have suffered outages due to a cyberattack over the past 12 months, there are significant opportunities in the data and security fields when it comes to skills development.

Push towards certifications

But ensuring that South Africa has such skills to draw upon is something no single organisation can take responsibility for. The entire ICT sector must work together and identify ways to address this. If skills development does not take immediate priority, then the risk that the gap will only worsen increases exponentially. Perhaps the spotlight must turn to how effective existing upskilling and reskilling initiatives have been.

Take the channel as an example. It is in every vendor’s and distributor’s best interest to push the skill sets of its resellers and cloud service provider partners. If there are not skills for its technologies, then there can be no growth. In our experience, we have seen that channel partners whose solutions engineers or architects are certified sign up to three times more new business than those who are not. Furthermore, new deal values are over a third higher for Gold and Silver Veeam partners demonstrating the tangible commercial value skilled personnel deliver to businesses.

Taking the steps necessary to keep employees up to date with the latest skill sets make companies more efficient with faster deployments and troubleshooting. This results in significantly higher levels of customer satisfaction. At Veeam, there are several certification paths to follow for graduate and existing employees who deliver our solutions. These include the Veeam Certified Engineer (VMCE) which is a technical deep dive in solutions deployment, configuration, and administration. There is also Veeam Certified Architect (VMCA) certification that teaches IT professionals the skills to effectively size, scope, design, optimise, automate, and troubleshoot deployments.

Considering how quickly technology is evolving with digital transformation becoming even more of a priority globally, the opportunity to harness skills development exists. One of the things that is still missing, however,  is how best to present South Africa’s youth with a career path built on modern ICT skills.

Beyond tradition

Consider university education. Very few IT qualifications are up to date once a degree is conferred to a graduate. Many experts estimate that, at best, coursework lags what is required from a modern workforce by two years. 

The skills gained to learn effectively is something that employers can and should utilise long after university is finished. Regardless of the field of  study, the critical aspect of tertiary education is equipping the student with the ability to acquire new skills. Employers can harness this and provide platforms for graduates to upskill themselves for specific digital work requirements.  In the fast-moving technology sphere, the demand for talented people with enquiring minds and a hunger to develop the ICT solutions of tomorrow is high.  

For the private sector there is the opportunity to work closely with tertiary institutes via graduate programmes. This is hardly a new concept, but one that bears reinforcing. It takes a significant investment from a company to manage such an initiative. Allocating resources for interns to do job shadowing and other aspects of the work function can be seen as a burden by some. But for visionaries, if it is done well and with the appropriate level of planning, there is the potential to gain a skilled employee once they have graduated, which can be too good to ignore. Not only is such a hire able to integrate into the workplace more easily than someone who begins from scratch, there will hopefully be loyalty to the sponsor organisation. Even more so if there is onward progression within the firm.

Pervasive brain drain

The departure of highly skilled South African professionals to other parts of the world has been around for decades. It remains a significant issue and one that is unlikely to go away. People will always be on the lookout for opportunities elsewhere.  Combined with the Great Resignation, the loss of intellectual capital from the workforce over the past year has been significant, increasing the competition amongst employers for available talent.

This has fed into a new trend with repercussions for the local talent pool, which the pandemic and homeworking has accelerated. Companies globally now look to employ people outside their geography. Increasingly, South Africans are working for American, European, and even Asian companies while still living in their home country. Previously, the competition  was the person next to you. Now, it’s a global talent pool from which companies choose across virtually any sector or country.

This is depleting the skills pot local companies can tap into. Learnership programmes do provide the means to mitigate against this risk. There is an opportunity to reinvent them to nurture ICT skills and create the digital workforce firms in the process of digital transformation need. Jobs such as data scientist or analyst for example. Companies also need to move beyond traditional thinking of just throwing higher salaries at the problem. Not only do employees want other benefits that money cannot buy – such as flexible working – they want progression too. Learnership programmes that prioritise skills development at an individual level to create a continuous environment for growth can be key to retaining talent, not just gaining them.

Companies look at ways to optimise their talent acquisition initiatives to better reflect the needs of business today. To invest in people is to invest in the future.  For the IT industry, this has never been truer.