The threat of the skills shortage
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.
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.
SAS: Improving the British Army’s decision making with data
SAS’ long-standing relationship with the British Army is built on mutual respect and grounded by a reciprocal understanding of each others’ capabilities, strengths, and weaknesses. Roderick Crawford, VP and Country GM for SAS UKI, states that the company’s thorough grasp of the defence sector makes it an ideal partner for the Army as it undergoes its own digital transformation.
“Major General Jon Cole told us that he wanted to enable better, faster decision-making in order to improve operational efficiency,” he explains. Therefore, SAS’ task was to help the British Army realise the “significant potential” of data through the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to automate tasks and conduct complex analysis.
In 2020, the Army invested in the SAS ‘Viya platform’ as an overture to embarking on its new digital roadmap. The goal was to deliver a new way of working that enabled agility, flexibility, faster deployment, and reduced risk and cost: “SAS put a commercial framework in place to free the Army of limits in terms of their access to our tech capabilities.”
Doing so was important not just in terms of facilitating faster innovation but also, in Crawford’s words, to “connect the unconnected.” This means structuring data in a simultaneously secure and accessible manner for all skill levels, from analysts to data engineers and military commanders. The result is that analytics and decision-making that drives innovation and increases collaboration.
Crawford also highlights the importance of the SAS platform’s open nature, “General Cole was very clear that the Army wanted a way to work with other data and analytics tools such as Python. We allow them to do that, but with improved governance and faster delivery capabilities.”
SAS realises that collaboration is at the heart of a strong partnership and has been closely developing a long-term roadmap with the Army. “Although we're separate organisations, we come together to work effectively as one,” says Crawford. “Companies usually find it very easy to partner with SAS because we're a very open, honest, and people-based business by nature.”
With digital technology itself changing with great regularity, it’s safe to imagine that SAS’ own relationship with the Army will become even closer and more diverse. As SAS assists it in enhancing its operational readiness and providing its commanders with a secure view of key data points, Crawford is certain that the company will have a continually valuable role to play.
“As warfare moves into what we might call ‘the grey-zone’, the need to understand, decide, and act on complex information streams and diverse sources has never been more important. AI, computer vision and natural language processing are technologies that we hope to exploit over the next three to five years in conjunction with the Army.”
Fundamentally, data analytics is a tool for gaining valuable insights and expediting the delivery of outcomes. The goal of the two parties’ partnership, concludes Crawford, will be to reach the point where both access to data and decision-making can be performed qualitatively and in real-time.
“SAS is absolutely delighted to have this relationship with the British Army, and across the MOD. It’s a great privilege to be part of the armed forces covenant.”