Nonetheless, this spells more opportunity for the ICT industry: “I’m not going in to force this down the customer’s throat,” says Olivier. “I’m going to say, you got a bit of this and that. I’m going to find ways to leverage more out of this. That’s where partnerships and alliances – co-opetition – are important.”
But delivering on those intentions and partnerships requires a key ingredient, one that is becoming ever scarcer in the country.
Earlier in the discussion, Bell had remarked: “(Enterprises) can’t afford for you to learn on their time. Everything is more urgent and must be out faster.”
He was talking about the demand for quality despite cost, but this also touches on a much bigger issue, one that requires much more buy-in than it is getting: skills.
Saying the ‘S’ word almost always draws the same response from IT professionals: a metaphorical roll of the eyes and a, ‘yeah, but what can you do?’ look. Yet skills are a serious problem. South Africa is not producing enough of them, particularly in the ICT field, and that shortfall is growing as 21st-century technologies start making an impact.
“There is a big gap between quality skills and the quantity of those skills,” says Dave Ives, head of Solutions at Karabina Solutions. “We have quality skills, but if I look at the new skills – machine learning, new languages and the stuff we’re encountering in the predictive space – I would say we have a skills shortage. If I look at the CRM and digital transformation space, taking a company to end-to-end transformation, I question if we have the depth and capability in this country.”
The big issue, he adds, is the lack of a large pipeline of people coming into the sector. Ives isn’t alone in this concern: an annual survey from Wits University’s Joburg Centre for Software Engineering last year found South African ICT skills to be lagging far behind Egypt, Kenya and Nigeria.
“We invest too little in skills as an industry and country,” says Dwolatzky, adding that this burden is too often laid at the feet of universities and government. Instead, the ICT industry needs to become much more involved and address its own culture. “If you look at the companies in India, for example, they recruit people from universities and put them on ten months of intensive training before putting them to work. They invest in their skills.”
Local companies throw newcomers into the deep end, then complain that the skills are rubbish: “We have to put the spotlight on what we as an industry are doing to produce the skills we need. There is plenty to complain about, but it’s all of our responsibility.”
“If I was approaching a vendor, I’d ask, ‘Do they actually contribute by growing skills?'” adds Kim Andersen, CTO at T-Systems South Africa. “In India, they decided IT matters to India’s economy. That has transformed the country. South Africa hasn’t made that decision yet.”
A pool of sharks
Due to the lack of decent local skills, it has created a market defined by scarcity: high salaries, low retention rates and relentless headhunting.
“A lot of companies in SA don’t look at skills as an investment,” says Pitso. “They do it because they have to – they’ll take in interns as a tax kickback. But if someone is studying software programming, they aren’t stupid. So they will exploit this and get a better job.”
That lack of an investment mindset is, instead, in the words of one attendee, creating a pool of sharks. For example, when one of the country’s major banks needed skills for antiquated Cobol systems, they started an academy to train those skills. But other companies, instead of partnering with the initiative, snapped up graduates as quickly as they could.
This took place between large entities such as financial institutions and government departments bolstering their in-house talent pool. The trend is creating a negative impact on the much smaller ICT market, which is often burdened with the expectation to train skills that they know will be lured away.
“I used to keep guys for three years,” says John Eigelaar, director and co-founder of Keystone Electronic Solutions. “Now most of them leave within six months to a year. I lose people before they are even at a useful stage!”
Adds Bell: “The problem is that the large companies such as the banks can off er salaries that don’t fall in line with the market we play in. They create this ceiling that makes it very hard for others to compete. So you have guys with a year’s experience getting double their salary and the industry loses them.”
But while there is agreement that the country needs more skills, not everyone sees the above as entirely negative. It may also define a feedback loop that helps the industry.
“If you train proper skills, wherever they go, they will generate more work,” says Armandè Kruger, regional sales director at PBT Group.
Armande Kruger – Regional Sales Director at PBT Group
“Instead of getting a slice of the pie, let’s grow the pie. It’s not a perfect model, but there is another side to it.”
Still, Dwolatzky makes a clear call to arms: “Let’s all get around the table, let’s run a programme jointly. We all contribute and create a big pool of skills we can then all fish from.”