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SA ICT sector navigates pandemic unscathed but skills gaps remain

- Wits University

The 2021 ICT Skills Survey results were released on 28 September 2021.

2021 JCSE-IITPSA ICT Skills Survey

South African ICT employers and practitioners appear to have adapted well to the Covid-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns, with little to no negative impacts on working conditions or ICT skills demand and supply. However, significant digital skills gaps remain.

This emerged in the 2021 ICT Skills Survey carried out by Wits University’s Joburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE) in partnership with the Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa (IITPSA). The survey, the 11th since 2008 and the first since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, assessed what impact the pandemic and lockdown have had on working conditions and skills supply and demand in South Africa.

Report co-authors Adrian Schofield, production consultant at the IITPSA, and Professor Barry Dwolatzky, Director of the JCSE, said in releasing their findings: “The surprising finding is that there are no surprising findings! The survey shows that the ICT industry has coped well in these disruptive times without needing to change much or re-invent itself. ICT companies and ICT professionals have coped well with new working conditions. They have not needed to scurry around hunting for new technologies and skill sets. Everything required for the “new normal” was already in place.”

Almost 60% of employer respondents felt that the pandemic had not affected skills availability, and overall respondent sentiment about the impact of work from home arrangements was positive. Employees have adapted to work from home, and many companies report an improvement in productivity, saying this model would likely remain in place in the long term.

Dwolatzky said: “If there’s any profession that should lend itself well to making digital transformation of the workplace possible and dealing with it comfortably, it is the ICT community. It is interesting to speculate that a ‘job’ has changed – where it was once attendance at a workplace for a number of hours a day, people working from home now need to be managed in a very different way and jobs no longer mean attendance by numbers of hours a day, but rather completing a collection of tasks or ‘gigs’. This raises the question of whether the ‘Gig Economy’ becomes possible. One of the things we probed was whether we are beginning to see the emergence of a ‘Gig Economy’. The conclusion is that this is not happening.” (Read: Skills survey finds SA ICT not moving to gig economy - yet)

However, he noted: “It’s still early days in terms of the changes we’ve seen since 2019, and the next few years may see new trends emerging.”

Skills Survey reveals most in-demand IT skills

Reported in the latest MICT SETA Sector Skills Plan, the top occupations with hard to fill vacancies in the MICT sector are Software Developers, Computer Network Technicians, Developer Programmers, ICT Communications Assistants, Computer Network & Systems Engineers, ICT Security Specialists, ICT Systems Analysts and Web Technicians.

The same report indicated the programming languages most in demand were found to be .NET, C#, C++, Java and VB, with a decline in demand for people to maintain legacy systems, such as COBOL developers.  The report noted that many companies were adopting the agile project management methodology, resulting in scrum masters being in demand. However, there are very few people in the country that have certified qualifications to work with the method.  The Survey report listed Java, Python, Javascript, C# and PHP as the top five languages.

The report noted that while the MICT sector includes over 30,000 companies, more than half of ICT practitioners work in other non-MICT sectors.

According to the report, the top occupations with hard to fill vacancies in the MICT sector (and the quantity needed) were:

  • Software developer (2 434)
  • Computer Network Technician (1 948)
  • Developer Programmer (823)
  • ICT Communications Assistant (755)
  • Computer Network & Systems Engineer (731)
  • ICT Security Specialist (713)
  • ICT Systems Analyst (676)
  • Web Technician (514)
  • Systems Administrator (405)
  • Programmer Analyst (397)
  • Management Consultant (Business Analyst) (359)
  • Advertising Specialist (224)
  • Telecommunications Network Engineer (164)
  • Database Designer & Administrator (114)

Schofield noted the increase in vacancies since the 2019 report and highlighted the challenge of relating an occupation to the core skills required to carry out the tasks thereof. He emphasised the comparison with the top priority skills listed by employers participating in the survey overall, which were:

  • Information security/cyber security
  • Big data design/ analytics
  • DevOps
  • AI/ML
  • Application development
  • Data management
  • Test automation/performance testing
  • Internet of things
  • Connectivity

Skills gap persists

On the question: is there a digital skills shortage? Schofield said: “Yes, there is and it’s ongoing. From the practitioners’ perspective, the skills gaps are real, measured in thousands locally and millions globally. We are still not seeing sufficient numbers coming through the skills pipeline.”

“The future is still about the foundations: education, getting more people comfortable with STEM subjects, ensuring that people have the aptitude for STEM and ICT subjects, ensuring that people gain practical experience, and we must approach the question of gender equality in the sector much more robustly,” he said.

Schofield noted that Continuing Professional Development would remain critical. “Employers consistently say they need to reskill employees, and vendors must identify competencies that will be replaced so they can also show where practitioners can be moved to new areas. All the practitioners participating in the survey say they want to learn new skills, but they need to know how and where, and how to choose from the menu.”

“Skilling is an investment for employers and practitioners, for long term sustainability. Government’s challenge is the industry’s challenge:  funding the investment required in education and training to support the investments in infrastructure and services. We need to combine thinking and resources in government and industry to ensure these investments are channelled, coordinated and productive.”

Future-proof qualifications

The report noted growing concern among young people about what to study to prepare for 4IR careers. Dwolatzky said: “Learning ‘coding’ seems to have become something of an obsession in recent years. We have also seen a mushrooming of coding academies and “Coding Bootcamps”. I would question whether the mass acquisition of skills in coding and robotics should be our priority in preparing South Africa for 4IR. Coding is hard to master and frustrating if you only learn it superficially.”

His advice for future-proof qualifications was to first strive to complete a university degree – any university degree. “Over the three years of an undergraduate programme you will learn to learn, communicate and sell. With a degree under your belt, learn the foundational skills required in the 4IR-related job you may wish to be doing. These foundational skills can be acquired via a good set of online courses or other alternative learning pathways. But remember that technical skills such as software development require many hours of practice,” he said.

Download the full report.