Don’t complain about the broken “skills pipeline” – fix it!!

by Prof Barry Dwolatzky


The ICT “Skills Crisis” – and how to solve it – is an issue that has been my major preoccupation over the past decade (or more). I was therefore interested to read an article in ITWeb (19th April 2010 ) headed “Holes in ICT Skills Pipeline” , written by Leigh-Ann Francis. ( ).  She quotes Marius de Beer, a software coach and mentor at ScrumSense, who believes that the “ …. ICT profession has been incapable of accurately classifying the nature of the skills shortage and by extension the skills gap ..”. He says that, faced with a severe skills shortage, employers in the ICT sector have lowered their criteria, employing under-qualified staff with the intention of providing future training and skills development. “Unfortunately, the follow-up training and skills development is seldom implemented. The net effect is an overall reduction in skill level and by extension, quality,” he says. 

While there are several valuable skills development initiatives in place, de Beer believes that many ICT employers have not heard of these. “Additionally, most of these initiatives (struggle) since they all compete for the same funding” he says. He believes that while companies complain about the skills crisis they fail to actively support educational programs. 

While I certainly agree with some of the points raised in the article I believe that it paints far too gloomy a picture. Rather than focusing on the problems – as this article does – would it not be better to highlight some of the solutions? Marius de Beer mentions worthwhile initiatives – lets hear more about these from ITWeb! 

Leigh-Ann Francis’s article highlights some of the issues I’ve been tackling, with some success, over the past decade. Some of these solutions are being piloted by the organisation I run – the Joburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE) at Wits University. 

  • Understanding the skills shortage: I agree with Marius de Beer that there is a crucial need to quantify the skills situation in the South African ICT sector. To this end the JCSE has been partnering ITWeb since 2008 in carrying out an annual Skills Survey. The 2010 survey is about to be launched with support from ISETT SETA and the Meraka e-Skills Institute. The quality of the data collected will depend on how many individuals and companies complete the survey.
  • Dealing with the skills pipeline: I believe that the formal tertiary education sector (Universities and Universities of Technology) provides excellent education to ICT professionals. South African ICT graduates are world-class. The problem we face is that we are not producing these graduates in sufficient numbers. We therefore need to find ways to raise the level of skills of those people already working in the ICT sector – many of whom are not ICT graduates. The JCSE and Wits University have pioneered a number of really exciting programs to do this (visit for more details):
    • CPD Programme: this allows people with 5 years or more of relevant experience in the ICT industry to be “bridged” into a Master of Engineering (MEng) degree program in Software Engineering. We currently have about 60 people in this programme
    • Student interns: aims to give professional software development experience to undergraduate students who are on a “light” academic load. These are students who may have failed one or two subjects in a computer science or engineering programme.
    • Master Classes, Evening Classes and Forums: aimed at keeping working professionals up-to-date with new ICT developments.
    • Attracting school children into the ICT sector: In the latter half of 2010 we will be launching a programme aimed at providing grade 10 learners with an opportunity to spend some of their school holidays working on software projects at the JCSE and some of our partner companies. 

We have also partnered with the Innovation Hub in Pretoria in setting up a “CoachLab” in Johannesburg. The CoachLab concept has run successfully at the Innovation Hub over the last 10 years. It is a leadership development programme for post-graduate ICT students. CoachLab@JCSE, launched in 2009, draws students from both Wits and University of Johannesburg (UJ) and has support from Microsoft, BB&D, Vodacom and Standard Bank. 

While I agree with some of the issues raised in the ITWeb article, I have a much more optimistic view of the ICT skills situation. I believe that there are companies that are dealing with ICT skills in a creative and constructive way. I also believe that organisations like the JCSE, the Innovation Hub, and others, are demonstrating innovative solutions. It is essential, however, to share information about these solutions and find ways to scale them up.

If you feel inspired to respond to this post – how about sharing some of the positive things you know about that are solving the ICT skills crisis?

4 thoughts on “Don’t complain about the broken “skills pipeline” – fix it!!

  1. The initiatives you mention are very promising and I think all the partnerships need to be applauded. What I took out from comment and work done by Marius de Beer is that he identifies the need for companies to take the initiative. There is some very negative criticism and much that can be justified in terms of government policies on education, academia, school systems and universities but the reality is that our educators have a very huge load and burden. Filling this gap needs to come from passionate individuals, professionals and more importantly from those enterprises that will ultimately benefit in one way or the other. Its a bit like the tragedy of the commons. But absolutely, it is heartening to see the work being done to address this and it should encourage us all to action, take responsibility and get involved.

  2. Roderick is right on all counts. Barry, you said it all with – “It is essential, however, to share information about these solutions and find ways to scale them up.” To me this is where our [the industry’s] focus must be. How many of the ICT enterprises know of these initiatives? How many support these initiatives? How many are willing to share their own initiatives? Let’s hold each other accountable to share and scale solutions.

  3. In Germany (for example), large Engineering companies are sponsoring Chair-Professorships (in German terminology: “Lehrstuhl”) at reputable universities. Now show me any South African commercial IT business or CEO who is long-term-funding or sponsoring a Computer Science or Software Engineering professorship (equivalent to a German “Lehrstuhl”) at any reputable South African university, and this CEO gets from me a package of biltong and a crate of beer (whereby unfortunately I cannot offer him any more than that, due to my lowly salary – in fact my external MSc nd PhD students are earning considerably more than I as their supervisor).

    However in reality it’s exactly the other way round – here at university we struggle to find and to keep intelligent and helpful tutors and junior lecturers for our students, because the South African IT industry is sucking them into their business like a sponge absorbs a drop of water. The South African IT industry, in my opinion, are greedily eating the seed corns which were supposed to be planted into the soil for the next harvest of crop. But such is business; they think in terms of their quarterly shareholder reports – and that’s it.

  4. Good afternoon Barry

    Like yourself I have also spent many years looking into skills availability in South Africa and my finding’s differ from many…Barry in terms of expertise to customer demands SA does not have a skills shortage, the dilemma lies in the fact that there are simply too many IT sector services providers all living off the same clients drawing from the same skills pool…The market is over traded.

    10 years ago there were a couple of hundred IT firms in SA with smaller companies haviing a average of 50 staff each, today there our thousands of SME System Houses with skills pools of 10 or less with many simply body shopping to a single organisation based on a special relationship or offering highly niche skills.

    My own records show that we have lost 18% of our veteran skills pool (7 years plus experience) to off shore retirement else starting families etc…But the number of new professionals more than offset these losses.

    Our other issue is the IT Recruitment sector…The job of finding rare skills today requires investments in market research and supporting technology, going on to data mine multiple search engines and networking sites both on and offshore as the manner in which professionals search for oppertunities has changed.

    Many IT firms do not need market reach as they live well farming clients whilst recruitment firms do not have to work too hard to make their numbers due to fee values…Hence do not need to make investments in their delivery capability…Creating a vacuum in the delivery chain.

    UK European USA and Australian recruitment firms run very powerful delivery infrastructures…Hence in terms of skills retention locally SA is a sitting duck when these organisations muscle into our skills pools…Which will increase in late 2010 as their economies recover.

    As a Systems Recruiter in SA for several years I seldom have a problem finding a skill set to a location to a industry to a cost but often fail to deliver when asked for a BEE catagory as a search factor, nobodies fault…it’s simply a mathematical fact.

    There you go…my pennies worth of input.

    Vaughan Storey

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