By Sheldon Lyne, GM, Operations, Entelect
The South African economy is at a tipping point. Slow economic growth and the recent downgrading of the sovereign rating has dire consequences for job creation and business growth. In times like these, businesses start looking at where they can cut costs and jobs are usually the first on the chopping block.
But the software industry is well-positioned to buck this trend, to create jobs through learning opportunities and to spearhead innovation that can help businesses cut costs and improve efficiencies in other areas.
Digital transformation has become a massive focus in recent years. Spend in the e-business sector continues to rise, with BMI TechKnowledge putting spend on IT services at R63 billion in 2016, up from R56.9 billion in 2015.
Reasons for this shift include increased access to the internet; the Internet of Things changing how people are interacting with business; access to data; and the ability to analyse and respond to data intelligence.
According to WEF, South Africa is classified as an efficiency economy; however, the growth of industries in the knowledge economy keeps South Africa competing with top-performing international markets such as Australia, Europe and the US.
Demand vs supply
Unfortunately, unemployment in South Africa is at one of the worst levels ever recorded. Youth unemployment is particularly drastic and worsening. According to Stats SA, 30.1% of youth aged 15 to 24 are not in employment, education or training, which is a percentage point increase on the previous year.
South Africa desperately needs job opportunities for young and recently matriculated students so that they can enter the job market and stimulate our economy. However, job creation requires two things. Firstly, jobs, but secondly, the technical skills to meet functional job requirements. Without both, job creation remains a theoretical discussion.
For the software industry to be properly supported, we need the required skills in the market. The South African economy will benefit the most if the required work is completed locally without the need to outsource these skills from international markets. Ideally, the resulting skills should come from a well-balanced diversification that is representative of our country’s demographics.
Unfortunately, we’re just not there yet. According to a recent Career Junction report, demand does not meet supply. That is to say, more than 30% of jobs in demand come from the IT sector but less than 7% of job placements have fed the IT sector, indicating that job growth in the tech sector is misaligned to the skills and talent coming through the education system.
Although there are some excellent graduates coming through the South African varsity system, there is a vast amount of untapped talent that does not reside in the formal education system.
Those on the periphery of the software talent pool may be there for several reasons: their parents do not understand the industry well enough to be able to recommend it as a career choice for their children; disadvantaged youths may not have access to computers to kindle that desire; or it may also be that girls are simply not encouraged to enter a male-dominated field.
The power of communities
Informal knowledge environments such as tech and software communities can help bridge this gap. Communities serve a multitude of purposes: they provide events where like-minded people can come together and mentor one another; they provide a platform to explore new ideas and troubleshoot problems, thereby increasing learning experiences and knowledge bases. But further to this, they serve as a forum for thought-leadership that can help improve the technology capabilities and development of cutting-edge solutions, thus keeping the South African software industry on par with its international competitors.
The software development industry is continuously breaking down boundaries and paving the way in innovation. Entrepreneurs and innovators don’t need to wait for government policy; individuals can push ahead and define their own future.
Even within the context of large corporates, students with degrees in applied maths no longer go straight into a modelling role. They can consider statistical market analysis, data analysis and data science, to name a few.
When we consider this in the African context, there are countless opportunities, given that the continent is so diverse and that there are endless opportunities in social entrepreneurship, medical healthcare, logistics, retail and banking.
Regardless of your formal training or your working environment, as a developer, one thing remains true: the software engineering industry is evolving at a pace not seen in many other industries. South Africa’s greatest challenge will be to meet those opportunities with the skills and talent necessary to deliver on those jobs.
For this pace of innovation to be sustained, industry thought leaders and influencers need to help guide young, talented individuals via mentorship and learning opportunities to help them compete effectively in the industry.
By putting more emphasis and support behind communities, we can not only bring these mentors and mentees together, but help inform parents about software engineering as a career prospect, give girls the confidence they need, and provide a forum where eager youngsters can access devices to start developing and feel pride at what they have created.
It makes good business sense to leverage the power of communities to help bridge the gap in formal training and get youngsters into jobs to stimulate South Africa’s economy.