As insufficient numbers of IT professionals graduate from tertiary institutions the skills gap continues to widen.

Greg Vercellotti, executive director of Dariel Solutions, says graduate numbers are remaining the same or dropping, while requirements in the industry are constantly increasing.

“It’s a global problem, but SA is probably worse off than the rest of the world – we have a 10 to 15-year gap that needs to be plugged. If we’re to become an economy of knowledge workers, we need to get people through the system more quickly.”

Vercellotti says while university graduates have a good IT background and generic skills, they lack certain essential skills to perform in the workplace. “For instance, universities will teach a general programming style, whereas we require them to know specific styles for the type of system they’re writing.”

One solution, he says, is to send employees on multiple short, focused and practical programmes, which allow them to apply immediately what they have learnt.

He says BSc and engineering programmes tend to focus on hard skills, but soft skills are equally vital in the industry. “Technologists can’t exist in a vacuum; they need to interact with clients. We find that people with good communication skills are a lot more successful than those without.

“People management is also important in getting people to work together as a team and deliver. We don’t usually do soft skills development as a once-off course, but weave it into our other programmes. It’s something you have to emphasise and reiterate.”

A further difficulty for the IT industry is insufficient numbers of maths and science matriculants coming out of the schooling system. Prof Barry Dwolatzky, professor of software engineering at Wits University, says this is a huge challenge that can only be resolved over the long term.

“If we are going to maintain and retain the South African software industry, which is world class and has been world class for decades, we need to find plans and approaches that can quickly produce more skills.”

Dwolatzky, who also runs the Joburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE), says a short-term solution is to uplift the skills of people who have already entered the workplace.

“The master’s programme requires a postgraduate degree in engineering or computer science, but because such people are so employable, the feedstock for our programme is low.”

To address this challenge, the JCSE has developed a three-year continuing professional development course for people who have work experience but don’t have the prerequisite formal degree.

“This is our flagship programme, but we also offer a number of short courses, evening courses, public lectures and forums. Many courses tend to be vendor-oriented, but we’ve tried to retain a neutral mould to build a deeper education, rather than just skills training.”

The programme comprises four masters courses taught as continuing professional development courses.

“If they pass all courses with 60% we then make a case to allow them to enter Wits as a mature student,” says Dwolatzky. “They receive credits for the courses they’ve passed and can complete the part-time master’s in two more years.

“We aren’t targeting to produce hundreds of skilled people, but relatively small numbers of highly skilled people.

“I see skills as a triangle – you need few highly skilled people to support larger numbers of less skilled people, but if you don’t have the people at the top of the triangle, you can’t do the work that needs those less skilled people.”

Vercellotti says anyone, including schools and further education and training colleges, can contribute to the IT skills shortage, provided it’s done properly and with the right intent. “We’ve been pretty disappointed with some of the college type education houses – some of them just take money and run and have no care for the needs of individuals.

“You can’t have everybody coming out with a university degree, but also need the middle tier people with diplomas and good skills. You need all strata of workers – employees and entrepreneurs; that’s where every institution has a role to play.”

source: Business Day