We face a major skills crisis in South Africa, and STEM skills are in particularly short supply. The smartest and the brightest individuals qualifying here are emigrating, tempted by more attractive work opportunities elsewhere. While there is no quick-fix solution, I am conscious that, as a country, we should be doing all we can to retain our homegrown talent and educated professionals before it is too late.
Fundamentally, we have an employment paradox. On the one hand, we are struggling to fill skilled roles. On the other hand, the unemployment rate increased to 27.2 percent in the second quarter of 2018 and is rising steadily. The number of unemployed rose by 103,000, to 6.1 million, while the number of employed fell by 90,000, to 16.3 million. Furthermore, the youth unemployment rate (individuals aged 15 and 34 years old, including university graduates) currently stands at 52.8 percent.
A Small Talent Pool
We know that in the IT sector job opportunities exist and are ripe for picking. But we are continually dipping into the same small pool of talent, and our peers, customers, and partners are doing the same. Qualified and skilled individuals are moving from one company to another, pushing up the cost to hire them, and the average age of a systems engineer is steadily rising.
At Citrix we often find ourselves having to “loan” our skilled consultants to our partners and customers to ensure IT projects are properly implemented. This is a short-term fix. In some sectors the recruitment model has been turned on its head, forcing companies to apply for candidates instead of job seekers applying for jobs.
Put simply, there is no new blood entering the market. Whilst there are several reasons for this, the unstable political situation is undeniably influencing our young people, along with the quality of STEM education, high crime rates, and continuing inequality. Combined, these factors make it very difficult to position South Africa as a prosperous place to work. This doesn’t mean it can’t be.
Encouraging STEM Education, Nurturing Homegrown Talent Are Key
There are a variety of ways to tackle the problem, and the South African business community is undeniably best-placed to step up and take the lead.
Primarily it is important that we invest in skills at an undergraduate level, encouraging greater interest in STEM subjects and nurturing homegrown talent. Entrepreneur and investor Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, is a prime example of local talent lost to another country. When he was just 17 he upped sticks. Education and the lack of opportunity were the biggest reasons for his departure. We need to focus on retaining highly educated South African-born talent like him.
Beyond university, we need graduate programmes that offer employment and on-the-job training in essential STEM skills. Additionally, every year overseas students and professionals travel to South Africa to take advantage of relatively low university fees. Once they graduate, they struggle to find employment, or their student visas expire, and they accept jobs in other countries.
We need to focus on making the South African workplace an attractive place to be. Creating the right physical space is an important part of this, along with providing the right technology. We should also think about creating multigenerational teams, encouraging existing staff of all ages to retrain and up-skill in essential STEM subjects.
South Africa needs professionals across all sectors for the economy and innovation to flourish. My hope is that in the next 12 months, the business community in South Africa will have come together in some way, and that progress will be underway to tackle the growing skills crisis. I hope to have some positive news to report soon.