When South African companies talk of a skills shortage, some people scoff at the idea and point to the official unemployment rate hovering at around 25%, with young people under the age of 35 making up about two-thirds of those out of work. The scoffers rightfully ask how there can be a skills shortage when so many people are unemployed, many of whom have already given up hope of ever finding a job.
“It may seem strange that some people complain about a skills shortage with such a high rate of unemployment, but the shortage is a fact occurring in areas that require skilled employees, such as programmers, project managers, networking technicians and so forth,” says Peter Searle, CEO of software development company BBD. “The evidence of the shortage is in the costs companies have to pay to obtain these sought-after skills, which are comparable to the costs European and British companies pay.”
Another piece of evidence supporting the shortage is the rapid turnover of staff with these skills. Searle says employees do not leave because their employer is a bad payer, but because the demand for these skills is so high that companies continually offer more money to poach good people.
“It’s hard for youngsters to resist the temptation of a pay raise, so they move from one employer to the next, not realising the potential damage they are doing to their careers by continually jumping ship,” adds Searle. “At the same time, employers often fail to realise the trend they are setting by poaching to fill their skills requirements, it does the industry in general no good.”
Furthermore, he says that while the ideal behind Black Empowerment and Employment Equity ratios is laudable, the manner in which it is implemented actually serves to reduce the number of black skills in the market because it plays down the benefits of training in favour of poaching skills of the right colour.
Equity ratios miss the boat
“There are simply not enough black skills in the market to allow everyone to have the “right numbers” of senior people on board,” notes Searle. “If government really wants to improve the number of black skills in the market, it should start by enforcing specific numbers of basic skills and then slowly move up the ladder to ensure that the more senior positions can be filled by capable people able to support and mentor other youngsters as they start their careers.”
The limited number of senior black management skills in the market simply means there is more competition for them. They keep getting better pay offers and often move into jobs that are not in the best interests of their ultimate careers or their industries.
Another problem the South African business community faces is the poor state of basic education in the country. This is a significant point of failure in the drive to reduce unemployment.
“We are also constantly focused on professional development for our staff, not only as a means of continually improving the skills and capabilities of the company and its services, but also as a means to retain staff. For those who stick around, not only do they make a good income, they are also continually exposed to the latest in technology and have the opportunity to work themselves onto the teams that do the type of work they have a passion for.”
“Job hoppers, on the other hand, may make good money, but they are never around for long enough to turn basic skills into real expertise and make a difference in some of the most exciting IT projects out there,” he adds.