How to fix South Africa's networking skills gap


Alfie Hamid
Alfie Hamid

By Alfie Hamid, Corporate Affairs Regional Manager for sub-Saharan Africa at Cisco

The ICT industry is in a state of constant and rapid change. A day is like a week, a week is like a month, and a month feels like a lifetime. While this change benefits South Africa's economy, especially as more people adopt technology and connect to the Internet, it also presents challenges to the government in terms of cost, infrastructure rollout and ensuring South Africa has the skills it needs to manage this change and the networked connections made possible by the Internet of Everything (IoE).

According to the Cisco® Visual Networking Index™ Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast for 2014 to 2019, 7.9 million net new devices and connections were added to South Africa's mobile network in 2014. This will grow to 112 million mobile-connected devices by 2019, fuelling a 63% compound annual growth rate in the amount of mobile data traffic generated between 2014 and 2019.

While this increased connectivity has the potential to boost economic growth by offering opportunities for education, job development, small business support and increased access to basic services, it also widens the networking skills gap. Research suggests that the greater the Internet user base in a country, the larger the gap in networking skills.

Cisco estimates that South Africa needs 30 000 to 70 000 skilled information technology workers to boost its economy and position it to compete internationally. But these skills are just not available. According to Adcorp, 829 800 positions for high-skilled workers in South Africa remain unfilled, including 432 100 vacancies for technicians.

In a recent contribution to the Global Talent Competitiveness Index Report, Cisco suggested a number of actions to take to overcome the skills gap. One of these involved removing strict limits on the number of visas that can be issued for skilled labourers from other countries. But while changing policies takes time, there are a few things we can start doing today, including:

  • Putting more effort into increasing the number of trained ICT – and specifically IP networking – graduates

This is not only the responsibility of the South African government. The public and private sectors should be partners in development of both infrastructure and skills. By combining their areas of expertise – the government's being running a country and the private sector's being ICT – the two parties can work together to understand and address challenges. For example, industry can make government aware of the ICT skills shortages in South Africa and make suggestions on how to work together to address the challenges, while government can make industry aware of infrastructure bottlenecks and how these can be overcome.

  • Integrating elements of computer science, such as basic coding, problem solving and general Internet technologies, into primary and secondary education curricula to introduce students to basic ICT

The speed of change in technology makes it difficult for the government to constantly update the IT education curriculum. Cisco's Networking Academy programme has taken this burden away from government by providing relevant training in basic and advanced ICT and networking skills. These programmes then form a training blueprint that schools, universities and vocational training centres can use without the concern that they are teaching outdated content.

  • Offering tailored training and mentorship programmes to accelerate the number of skilled networking employees joining the workforce

Cisco's Networking Academies prepare students for entry-level ICT jobs in partnership with the South African government. Since 1999, Cisco has invested approximately R100 million in training over 34 000 South African students in a variety of ICT skills, through 64 Cisco Networking Academies.

  • Encouraging corporates, through public-private partnerships (PPPs), to offer apprenticeships and share technical know-how through coursework

The partnership between Cisco and the South African Department of Science and Technology on the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project is a perfect example of a mutually beneficial relationship that works towards the betterment of the country.

The SKA is bringing advanced technology to the relatively rural area of Carnarvon in the Western Cape, which does not have the skills needed to maintain the technology. A large portion of Cisco's R60 million investment into the SKA project will go towards skills development and research, supported by the establishment of a Community Knowledge Centre (CKC) and Cisco Networking Academy in Carnarvon. To date, the Academy has trained more than 130 community members, the majority of whom have found full-time employment.

Before the CKC was set up, the Carnarvon community did not have the funding or resources to search for information. Today, children from schools in the community use the centre as a research facility and older community members use it to learn how to use ICTs.

As mobile technology continues to shape business and society, access to a growing skilled workforce is essential in order to deploy and manage networks. While the presence of the IP networking gap highlights a missed opportunity for South Africa to reach potential economic growth, with dedicated public policy, specific training programmes, and public involvement on the part of governments, citizens and private enterprise, we can solve the talent gap.

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