by Wesley Lynch on 12/10/12 at 6:33 am
The dearth of ICT skills in the industry has exasperated businesses and tech academies alike. Firms are both aggressively competing for staff and over-outsourcing skills, placing significant pressure on the industry.
A visit to global India-based, business-focused conference revealed an impressive degree of integration between tech companies and universities, which seems to have mitigated many of the issues we experience locally. For one thing, there had been a significant turnout of Master students and professors at the event – and their seats had been paid for by their respective universities.
In South Africa, IT students (and academia) rarely have the opportunity to network with businesses, which can lead disconnection with real-world IT issues. At certain universities old technologies such as Cobol are being taught because there is a resident expert on-board, despite it being outdated. Little attention is given to technologies such as mobile or cloud computing, which is in line with the needs of the African continent.
I was also surprised to note that Indian software companies have relocated closer to universities, research and development lab and recruitment firms in order to keep their fingers on the pulse of innovation. The integration between the two entities is seamless enough that students can graduate on one end of the street and walk across to the other, fully skilled to be productive in a position in industry or R&D.
We’ve not even come close to this degree of cooperation in South Africa, which does not allow us to foster innovation to the same extent – to our detriment.
For one thing, like India, we have proudly punted our business process outsourcing (BPO) industry but are losing the race to countries such as Mexico, Ukraine and Turkey that do not have our language and time zone benefits. Similarly, our African peers Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Angola are drawing foreign investment due to their attractive skills and ability to manage industry sectors. Producing the right skills in the right focus areas may be the key to turning the tables.
India is a great example of a country that has found, stuck with, and fully developed a particular business process outsourcing niche, thus creating not only wealth through exports, but also jobs. One of South Africa’s more successful BPO niche areas, software development, can be further strengthened by focusing on fringe skills such as software testing. Post-production in the film industry is another example of a successful activity that could do with more skills on either side of the film-making continuum.
As Africans we have a greater reliance than most on mobile, and an opportunity to grow development skills that can drive advances in digital content on platforms ranging from feature phones to smartphones and tablets. We should be focusing on teaching our students more about relevant technologies, rather than encouraging learning for the sake of it.
There must be greater collaboration between institutions of learning and business; both sides must actively seek it out with recruitment and post-graduate or research programmes as well as innovative initiatives that suit their unique objectives. This should also reduce staffing shortages – where niche skills are needed, especially by start-ups and smaller companies, the current over-supply of vanilla-flavoured skills drives up the cost of the right skills, putting them out of reach of the one area where innovation is likeliest to come from. With many more start-ups per graduating class by comparison, India has been able to build an industry rich in intellectual property, consequently attracting a great amount of off-shore business process outsourcing.
If we want to truly overcome the ICT skills gap, we should start at the source: education. In order to do that, businesses need to integrate with universities and colleges and collaborate on what should be taught, and how. In addition – we should be offering these students internships and room to grow within organisations. There’s a lot to be learnt from India – and we should implement these lessons now.
Wesley Lynch founded the development company Realmdigital in 1999 and is also the co-founder of MyTrueSpark. Wesley, a technology entrepreneur, has over a decade of experience in the financial, business and software development industries. View more articles by Wesley Lynch.