By Jerome Zoutman, Operations Manager at DYNA Training
South Africa is at a tipping point. The pool for Information Technology (IT) resources is rapidly shrinking. Whether it’s due to the emigration-related brain drain or because skilled individuals seek work in other industries, the effect is the same. The demand for IT skills is rising at an unsustainable rate as the fourth industrial revolution transforms industry sectors through automation, artificial intelligence, and robotics. What are we doing to meet this demand? Not enough. Not by a long shot. To avoid a skills shortage from turning into a full-blown skills crisis in South Africa, we need to be more proactive and more creative in how we meet the growing demand for IT skills.
By increasing IT skills learnerships for disadvantaged and disabled individuals, we can simultaneously address two pressing challenges in the labour market. Firstly, creating employment for previously overlooked sections of the workforce. Secondly, supplying the skills necessary to help businesses across all industries to become digital-first organisations, that meet the challenges of economic recovery both in the immediate and long-term future.
Real world skill-building opportunities
Learnership programs are an exceptionally effective means for individuals to gain critical skills in a working environment that allows them to put their theoretical knowledge into practice. This is important, as it is only through real-world application that knowledge becomes skill. Here, given the nature of the IT industry, there is a new level of accessibility that translates into opportunities for disadvantaged and disabled individuals, in a way that was previously not possible. In the IT industry, disability is not as much of a barrier to entry as it would be, for example, in construction or manufacturing. As a result, such individuals should be prioritised in IT learnership programs and given the chance to gain knowledge that they can turn into skills to become work ready. By increasing their employability, it gives a previously overlooked sector of the working population the ability to contribute to the economy in a meaningful way.
However, it is not enough to place disabled or disadvantaged people in learnership programs, as this does not guarantee post-program employment. Particularly for disabled individuals, this group still remains overlooked when it comes to employment. Declaring a disability on an individual’s CV drastically decreases their chance of gaining employment. Many businesses still operate under incorrect biases and misconceptions as to what disability is. They underestimate the real contribution that disabled individuals can make in a business, as well as their willingness to contribute and engage with workplace culture.
Business leaders and their companies need to start being more accommodating by giving exposure and access to people with disabilities and individuals from a disadvantaged background. Although businesses that hire such individuals reap benefits through the Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment (BBBEE) scoring system, creating a mutually beneficial situation for both the individual and the employer, it needs to be about more than extra points on a scorecard. It needs to be about genuine inclusion, and tangible skills development. Doing this might be challenging, but the rewards are immense, and incredibly important given the high stakes faced by South Africa.
Tailoring learnerships appropriately
For companies looking to take on the challenge of building up their own skills base while working meaningfully toward proper diversity and inclusion, this means working on accessibility. Not in the traditional sense of the word (such as wheelchair ramps and elevators) but in a broader sense. It means offering such individuals the right level of skills development opportunities – right from the basics with end-user computing, through to National Qualifications Framework (NQF) level 2. By starting with the basics, this allows such individuals the chance to build their understanding and experience and to work up toward qualifying for higher learnership programs in the IT space, potentially up to a software development qualification at NQF level 6. This lays a solid foundation and gives individuals a visible career path with proper growth opportunity.
Approaching learnerships with growth in mind
Collectively, we need to step out of the mindset that learnerships are simply a tick-box exercise. We need to set out with the end-goal in mind. The way I see it, this means we have to ask ourselves why we’re doing what we’re doing. Are we doing it for the points, or are we doing it to potentially give a learner the best possible shot at getting a full-time job eventually? If we look at it this way, it becomes obvious that we need to do whatever it takes to get that learner into the program, and then do whatever it takes to ensure the learner comes out of the program in such a way that their employment is the end-result. The benefit to the company? Gaining a new skill set, and making a tangible contribution to tacking unemployment and doing our part to address the subtle discrimination that disabled individuals face in every other aspect of their lives.
Turning goals into results
For companies that want to get on board with this goal of tackling the skills shortage and contributing to inclusion of previously marginalised individuals in the workplace, this is not something they need to do alone. The right training partner can make all the difference in turning goals into results and doing it in such a way that we effectively prevent a skills shortage from tipping irredeemably into an economic crisis.