SA’s shortage of software skills needs urgent attention

Aug 17th, 2018

By Peter Searle (BBD CEO) and Ralf Dominick (BBD Chairperson and Fourth Industrial Revolution panellist at the Kgalema Motlanthe Foundation Inclusive Growth Forum)

Lack of software skills is one of the biggest challenges facing South Africa, as the country looks to the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) to unlock growth.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has prioritised South Africa’s readiness for the 4IR, the new next wave of technology development – in which the digital, physical and biological worlds converge.

In his State of the Nation address in February 2018, he said that he planned to set up a Digital Industrial Revolution Commission to help government think through strategies for South Africa to take advantage of rapid technological changes.

It will be very important that such a commission engages closely with the public and private sectors and the full spectrum of educational institutions, from primary to tertiary education and international technology leaders, to share best practices and provide innovative ideas and fresh expertise.

Ultimately, flexible partnerships between the government and business are crucial, if South Africa is to successfully upgrade its skills to be compliant for the 4IR. Furthermore, adopting a flexible educational strategy will be vital to come up with new ways to transform the country’s existing skills base into a 4IR compliant one.

Industry 4.0 was formed in 2011 in Germany, as a project to examine how the convergence of digital and operational technologies – in the context of the complete industrial value chain – would digitally transform manufacturing.

Since then the idea has expanded beyond manufacturing into other sectors, such as service industries. From this we’ve seen the emergence of connected factories and industries with smart decentralised self-optimising systems and digital supply chains, all driven by information technology in a combined physical-virtual world. This has become known as the 4th Industrial Revolution.

This convergence of physical and virtual worlds referred to as Cyber-Physical Systems is creating massive potential for change in the economies and societies of the world. Globally companies and governments are investing in this potential and South Africa should be doing the same.

It is interesting to note that the technologies of the 4IR are not limited to multi-national corporates and can be applied to small and medium enterprises.

Even a small factory linking its production line capacity into the supply chain will result in manufacturing efficiencies and create opportunities for business to supply and support this capability.

Given South Africa’s current primarily unskilled labour pool, and poorly performing education, we have to look at new innovative ways to educate our people to acquire the skills needed to capitalise on the 4IR.

An example of how to tackle our skills challenges in information technology (IT) is the Cape Town and Johannesburg based tech institution WeThinkCode_ (WTC).

This is a free peer-to-peer learning institution, which uses an innovative process to select students with a programming aptitude, enthusiasm and willingness to learn, to join the two-year course. Apart from being free, it requires no prior experience and even a matric is optional.

BBD is one of three founding corporate sponsors of WTC and has experienced real benefit from the investment by significantly boosting recruitment of top quality programming graduates.

In a country where software engineering graduates are in short supply and sometimes not properly trained as application software developers, this is an innovation that has the potential to be a game changer.

In the IT domain there are a many career options and skills requirements other than programming. Anecdotal evidence indicates that 10 jobs are created for every programmer that is trained and deployed into the market.

It is imperative that similar vocational based training approaches are used to skill up South Africans for roles in operations, networking and other technology functions.

A worldwide trend towards vocational training for a specific skill set, allied with apprenticeships, is becoming an excellent alternative to university training. It has the further benefit of being largely industry funded with less student debt and country investment.

An approach that develops skills in the technologies of 4IR with specific vocational training, as per WTC, will benefit South Africa. This thinking ties in with President Rhamaposa’s Youth Employment Service (YES) initiative, should that initiative recognise relevant 4IR related vocational training as part of the programme.

To further develop our local capabilities, South Africa must make it attractive, and easy, for immigrants with 4IR skills to move to South Africa and join in developing our industries.

If the anecdotal job multiplier evidence is to be believed, a single programmer can have an immediate impact on job 4IR creation.

Currently, in spite of our dire shortage of IT professionals, the hurdles to obtaining work visas for foreign skills are substantial.

This approach flies in the face of other countries who open their arms to our technology graduates. BBD has experienced this directly, with top software development professionals being specifically targeted by head hunters and moving to Australia, New Zealand, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK and the USA.

With further collaboration between business and government, along with initiatives such as YES, South Africa can become a country with a future linked to the 4IR. We have the people and they just need the opportunity.

Ralf Dominick, BBD Chairperson and Fourth Industrial Revolution panellist at the Kgalema Motlanthe Foundation Inclusive Growth Forum