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Skills survey finds SA ICT not moving to gig economy - yet

- Barry Dwolatzky and Tony van der Linden

Survey shows a shift to the gig economy has not occurred in SA, but it's plausible that this might change in future.

The Covid-19 move to work from home has raised the question of whether linking an employee to a single employer still makes sense, or whether the traditional “job” should instead be broken down into a sequence of tasks or “gigs” that can be carried out by anyone.  

What is a “job”? The simple answer - without getting bogged down in legal technicalities — is that it’s an arrangement between a person, called an “employee”, and another person or entity, called an “employer”. Through this arrangement the employee agrees to spend about 40 hours every week at a “place of work” assisting the employer in conducting its business.

In return the employer provides the employee with the necessary tools - a salary, and (possibly) other benefits and incentives. The arrangement is exclusive — the employee provides services to only one employer.

The employer usually puts processes in place, called “management”, to monitor the work of its employees. These processes focus mostly on “time-and-attendance” management. They ensure that the employee puts in — at least — the agreed number of hours per week at the place of work.

Whether replacing “jobs” with “gigs” would be a logical consequence of the changes brought about by the pandemic was one of the questions we hoped to answer when we launched the 11th edition of the Johannesburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE)-Institute of IT Professionals SA ICT Skills Survey in July 2021. 

We wondered whether we might see a reduction in the number of people employed in the sector (fewer “jobs”) while the amount of work stayed the same or increased.

We asked IT practitioners whether they were now working for multiple employers in a “gig economy” mode of engagement. The results indicate that this change is not occurring in SA - yet.  

However, we are still left with the question: is a shift to the gig economy likely to happen in our local ICT sector in the near future? 

At first glance the gig economy promises the attractive prospect that employees could have the freedom and autonomy to manage their own time, make money doing things they love and things that challenge them.   

However, for flexibility we sacrifice security. The gig economy transfers the risk inherently associated with full-time employment from the employer to the employee. Benefits associated with full-time employment, such as paid leave, are no longer part of the deal. 

Even though as our survey shows a shift to the gig economy has not occurred in SA, it is plausible that forces in the industry might change this in future.  

The question is - what factors are at play and what role do they have in renegotiating the historic and exclusive arrangement between employer and employee?

Among the changes wrought by the pandemic has been the role of the manager, which has shifted from managing time and attendance to managing outcomes and expectations. It requires managers to give up absolute control and share responsibility with their subordinates. 

With little oversight possible, tasks have been broken up into smaller subtasks independently planned and executed by employees based on their strengths and experience. Employees have become empowered, can take ownership, make decisions and deliver work based on the conditions in which they find themselves. 

Employees are committed and more effective. Employers have been surprised at the increase in the output that has been achieved. Underpinned by forced introspection, the employee has discovered the possibility and importance of a better work-life balance, the ability to deliver quality output from anywhere, as well as the value of good skills.

So, what will give way first to force the adoption of a gig economy in ICT? The pandemic has provided fertile soil in which a gig economy could flourish. 

In these uncertain times, and since people are at the core of the business in the ICT sector, employers are forced to be innovative in how they maintain their culture and competitive advantage. 

As both are vested in the people they employ, employers are at risk. In an attempt to protect what is important, employers are looking at mechanisms to encourage employees back into the office. This approach may very well backfire since employees are seeing the advantages of working from home.

This tension between employers and employees might just be what is required to break the current balance, making the gig economy an attractive alternative, bringing with it new ways of working and new skills sets.

The JCSE-IITPSA ICT Skills Survey findings on the effects of Covid-19 on work and skills will be released on September 28.

Professor Barry Dwolatzky is the Director of the Johannesburg Centre for Software Engineering at JCSE and Director for Innovation Strategy Wits University. Tony van der Linden is CIO and head of R&D at BBD.

This article was first published in Business Day.