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The threat of the skills shortage

|Jul 5|magazine10 min read
Although Africa is experiencing a surge of growth in many key sectors, skills shortages within the continent’s most profitable industries are becoming a rising concern. We must ask, ‘how feasible is it for the majority of specialist job postings to go to Africans?’

In terms of growth, from the crop of Africa’s business triumphs, telecommunications is in a league of its own. Africa is the fastest growing mobile phone market in the world. The runaway success of pre-paid cellular services looks in no immediate danger of slowing pace. The scaling-up of a skilled workforce to match this development speed is, and will continue to be, a major priority. Job applicants at all levels in the industry will be needed including engineers, technicians, business development managers, and staff dedicated to customer services.

Despite this high demand, traditional routes to becoming an ICT professional are not going to produce enough competent candidates to fill the labor hole.

WHERE THE PROBLEM STEMS

The problem starts with basic education. Angie Motshekga, Minister of Basic Education in South Africa commented that “the performances of learners in the gateway subjects of maths, physical science and accounting remain cause for concern”.

The number of students who do well enough in subjects like mathematics and science to gain access to university is below the required amount to ensure there will be enough ICT professionals to sustain the demand in industry in the next five years.

Whilst there is a general skills challenge for this area, the nature of mobile phone advancement does nothing to help fight this issue. High-end IT skills are notably lacking. Mobile phones increasingly rely on converging technology with every re-invention and therefore require divergent technological skills as voice, data and video become integrated into one device and service. Engineers and designers are specifically in short supply.

As Andile Tlhoaéle, Inforcomm CEO and member of the ICT charter steering committee in SA, has pointed out, companies that are forced to import skills, or outsource, will inevitably erode human capital development as the industry will be made up of a foreign workforce.

But ICT is not the only fruit, and other more traditional industries that are expected to provide the basis for African economic development will find themselves scrambling for qualified job candidates. Let us divert our attention to mining, an industry that according to PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) is poised to return to the boom time.

A study conducted by Namibia’s Chamber of Mines demonstrated a decline of 37 percent of mining professionals and 15 percent artisan trades, and concluded that skills supply will fall short of demand within only three years.

For South Africa, the third biannual Mining Survey by Landelahni Business Leaders has clearly warned in its recent report that an impending skills shortage could stunt future growth as training is below the required demand and the situation is exasperated by many skilled workers leaving the country. Landelahni CEO, Sandra Burmeister, cautioned that “we are not producing sufficient skills to replace the ageing engineering and artisan population, let alone to gear the industry for growth”.

The Landelahni Mining Survey sites management, professional, skilled and semi-skilled categories as trailing behind the industry average at present.

On close inspection this type of recruitment challenge is common across other industries upon which Africa hinges its progression including aviation, port operations, banking and financial services to name but a few.

TACKLING CHALLENGES

Educational reform is the first step to tackling the skills problem and there are strong arguments that the industry needs to work hand-in-hand with the public sector on the training priorities for each country if employment challenges are to be addressed by regional human resources.

To this effect in South Africa, the Services Sector Education and Training Authority (SETA) said it would not accept submissions for inclusion in the final national skills development strategy unless they were signed off “by relevant director-generals, and senior business and labor leadership in the sector”.

Any measures in restructuring basic education, training, mentoring and apprenticeships taken now will arguably be for a longer term solution whereas the immediate years ahead will be a difficult time for recruitment into the brightest industries. At least for the limited pool of trained professionals in Africa, firms will be eager to secure their skills.