South Africa’s ICT sector is on par with global counterparts, but skills shortages remain the biggest challenge in 2020, say IITPSA Board members

South Africa’s ICT sector is highly innovative and entrepreneurial, presenting opportunities for significant job creation and export opportunities in the decade ahead.  However, the ICT brain drain and slow ICT skills development threaten the country’s Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) progress.

Reflecting on the biggest challenges and opportunities for the SA ICT sector in 2020, Board members of the Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa (IITPSA) point to skills shortages as the single biggest challenge facing the sector in the next ten years.

Seizing 4IR business opportunities

The opportunities for South Africa’s ICT sector outweigh most of its challenges, said Pearl Pasi, IITPSA Non-Executive Director and Chairperson of IITPSA’s Western Cape Chapter. The emerging 4IR is bringing a range of new business and career opportunities. 

“One of the key benefits is that the 4IR is seeing previously manual work being automated and completed in a fraction of a second. Initially, this did not sit well with employees who feared job losses, but this challenge has been resolved by reskilling and upskilling of most employees to keep pace. Furthermore, new careers that didn’t exist in that last decade have been created, for example in the app development and programming spaces. This has also brought more women into the IT fraternity, thereby improving gender inequality,” she said.

IITPSA President, Thabo Mashegoane, said data from the World Economic Forum suggests the emergence of the 4IR could create up to 160 million new jobs. 

“South Africa has witnessed Microsoft building cloud data centres in Johannesburg and Cape Town, and Amazon establishing its presence in country, which presents new opportunities for our young people to contribute and find employment,” he said.

Pasi pointed to improved internet speeds and lower data costs as factors helping to fast-track sector growth. “It has been become easier for IT start-ups to get big contracts without the need of huge capital investment. Affordable internet connections make it easier for businesses, and improved mobile connectivity now means more people can easily work from home.”

On the other hand, Mashegoane noted that connectivity is still priced out of reach of many. “Africa has a connectivity challenge where it costs on average 7.12 per cent of income to access the internet, which leaves over two billion people offline. Expensive data is a threat to universal access and might contribute in disadvantaging people further. We need an appetite for policy intervention to deal with promotion for universal access to internet so that we don’t perpetuate inequality further.”

Facing up to challenges

Moira de Roche, IITPSA Director and IFIP IP3 Chair, echoed the view that South Africa’s ICT sector is alive and well. 

“We see a lot of innovators and entrepreneurs around 4IR technologies and it is encouraging that some schools are now teaching subjects like robotics. Overall, the sector is in good shape,” she said. “However, we do need to do more to nurture talent and keep it in the country. ICT professionals are leaving South Africa, and one reason they do so is crime. There is little the sector can do to change that, but organisations do need to be conscious of employees’ needs to develop their skills and not get left behind; and they need to reward them appropriately.”

Admire Gwanzura, IITPSA Vice-President and Non-Executive Director, said 4IR technologies are bringing a wealth of opportunities for job creation and business growth in South Africa. 

“We’re already seeing the cloud creating jobs here and innovators finding opportunities in areas like AI, IoT and Blockchain. With the proper regulatory environment and training in place, the 2020s could bring significant opportunities for the ICT sector. The opportunities are here, and South Africans have the aptitude to take advantage of them. But skills development is a critical challenge – even more so as the 4IR threatens traditional jobs,” he said.

Another challenge in the new 4IR era is getting to grips with the plethora of new solutions now coming to market, said Pasi. “New technology advances rapidly and shows up in media on all sides. This can also mean that users, managers at all levels, and even competitors pressure IT staff to implement new technology, simply because it is new and works better. It could prove challenging to decide which of these new technologies will work to the best interests of advancing the organisation, and which are better to avoid for now. Organisations are different and the value of each new technology will vary depending on organisational goals.” 

Ethics and soft skills overlooked

De Roche noted that certain attributes and soft skills which are crucial for the 4IR tend to be overlooked in ICT skills development discussions. “We need to look beyond technical skills development – we also need to look at skills that will differentiate people from robots.” 

Pointing to creativity, innovation, ethics and professionalism, de Roche said teaching these skills will be more challenging than teaching technical skills. “These skills aren’t easy to teach – they should be embedded in every subject and adopted throughout the culture of every organisation and the country as a whole.”

 “These skills are crucial in allowing us to use our fantastic innovation capabilities to harness the power of the technology we have in an appropriate and ethical way,” she concluded.