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Why practical skills training should be a strategic imperative for SA’s IT leaders

March 20, 2017 • Education, General, Opinion, Southern Africa

Gareth Hawkey, redPanda Software CEO.

Gareth Hawkey, redPanda Software CEO.

In a business environment that is now largely driven by innovative IT and software, there is massive demand for skilled and highly trained IT professionals. Sadly, as has been well documented, there is an increasingly dire shortage of these individuals in the local sphere.

This lack in supply seems to be partly the result of a formal education system that is not adequately addressing the needs of local companies and providing a reliable pipeline of talent. As it stands, gaining entry to top universities remains hugely competitive (and often too expensive), and many students are opting for more traditional careers as doctors, accountants or engineers.

In the short and long term, this means that there just aren’t enough young and ambitious people stepping into the IT industry to meet the ever-growing need.

Global tech bigwigs adding pressure

Simultaneously, this demand is being driven by global companies that are opening up branches in South Africa (e.g. Amazon and Facebook) as well as the growth of South Africa as a prime destination for offshoring. Naturally, this places added stress on the imbalance between the supply and demand of IT talent.

While these are the key factors behind the skills shortage, the mounting challenge for local companies is that IT salaries continue to grow exponentially (mainly because there are so few people in this group being fought over by so many companies). This inevitably puts an extra layer of cost onto recruitment and retention.

In the long term, this worrying trend could eventually lead to such a growth in the baseline cost for businesses that they run the risk of becoming too expensive to compete in a cutthroat international IT market. Given the local market conditions, this would be devastating for South African businesses with an eye on expansion.

Platform for Practical Learning

For local supply to meet demand, we should be producing thousands of new developers each year, for example. Arguably, this has to be addressed on a large scale – through a formal training and education process that takes place within the industry itself. In our view, this cannot be left solely to education or academic organisations to address, but instead, the industry (including business leaders) should embrace the skills challenge.

In a high-pressure environment, today’s companies require new recruits to be productive from day one – and in order to make this a reality, businesses and learning institutions need to provide the necessary theoretical and practical training.

For example, software houses should create a unique platform for learning so that they can produce hundreds, or even thousands of developers every year – who leave that educational forum equipped to be immediately productive and influential.

Training as a Strategic Objective

Given the urgency – and gravity – of the skills shortage within local IT, our view is that training and skills development should be a key strategic objective for savvy businesses. In addition, the issue of recruitment and retention needs to be carefully addressed by the top-level executives within every company in order for it to be part of the cultural fabric that runs through the organisation.

Ultimately, this means that the recruitment process has to be well defined, both technically and culturally… meaning that technical skills need to be a consideration as well as the cultural and personality fit of every new recruit.

Within our organisation, we believe that a career needs to be considered both from this technical perspective and a personal perspective – and both aspects need to be fulfilled in order to achieve the best results for both the individual and the company in the long term.

Critically, this requires educating and training managers to spot the right talent within their own organisation, and to grow this internal talent to meet the recruitment needs. It’s about empowering those managers and giving them the time and space with their team members to ensure that each individual career is always moving forward.

Leadership is Paramount

As countless examples have shown us, building a dedicated and loyal workforce comes down to walking the walk: you cannot simply promote the organisation during the recruitment process and then not follow through on the statements or promises made.

For example, if you say you promote from within, what are you doing to support this process? How are you training and educating people so that they can be promoted from within?

The ability to clearly demonstrate the results of this approach (for example, 9 out of the last 10 appointments in our company have come from within the organisation) will certainly resonate with employees and ultimately build loyalty and trust.

While financial rewards are undoubtedly a factor, developing a long-term culture of trust and a loyal workforce takes far more than money. It takes personal attention, and the ability to demonstrate that your organisation is truly investing in people, and in the country at large.

By Gareth Hawkey


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