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NOW Ep27: Solving SA’s tech talent crisis

In this episode of No Ordinary Wednesday podcast, Jeremy Maggs and guests discuss the critical shortage of tech talent in the South Africa. How did we get here? And what are we doing to address the crisis? 

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Only 121,000 developers reside in South Africa of 26.8 million globally - The shortage is obvious

Of the 26.8 million active software developers globally, only 121,000 reside in South Africa, out of a total of 716,000 in Africa. Add to this the fact that 38% of African developers work for at least one organisation outside of the continent and it’s clear why tech talent is hard to come by for South African firms.

There are not enough technical skills in the country to satisfy business demand

The move from monolithic on-premises IT solutions to in-Cloud rent-and-assemble models is further exacerbating the unrelenting demand for top tech talent locally and globally.

In fact, the latest 2021 ICT Skills Survey found nearly 10,000 hard-to-fill positions in the South African information and communications technology (ICT) sector, this in a country where 12.5% of graduates are unemployed.

“There are just not enough technical skills in the country to satisfy business demand. That is the crux of the matter,” says Malcolm Laing, former Investec Group CIO and founding member of the Academy of Accelerated Technology Education (AATE), a new initiative by SA corporates that aims to address two prolific challenges that currently afflict South Africa – record unemployment and a persistent skills shortage in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector.

“There's no lack of intelligence. These graduates are amazing – we find brilliant people coming out of the universities, but their technical skills are not quite what is required on the job, so they can't hit the ground running.”

Laing believes this is due to university curriculums not keeping up with the pace of technological change. He explains that universities need a stable curriculum, while the tech industry is changing its methods and means every 18 months.

That’s not to say that universities don’t have a place in teaching foundational tech skills, he says: “If you are taught the basics of technology properly and you understand the impact of code, then you understand the underlying fundamentals of the tech world.”


War on tech talent

Tech talent in numbers.

26.8 million

Active software developers globally.

121, 000

Software developers reside in South Africa.


Software developers reside in Africa.

10, 000

Hard-to-fill positions in the SA ICT sector.


The talent is there, if you look hard enough

“Talent is universally distributed, but opportunity is not,” says Stephen van der Heijden, VP of Community at OfferZen, a leading developer job marketplace with offices in South Africa and The Netherlands. “In short, there are people that are undiscovered that are not realising their potential.”

“Our mission is to find these undiscovered developers and give them the world's opportunities,” says Van der Heijden. “Software developers are notoriously bad at packaging themselves and we find that with a little guidance and the right tooling, we can help them better represent themselves in the market and get the jobs they deserve.”

Junior software developers switch employment every few months because they want to learn different programmable language

“According to our State of the Developer Nation report, a junior software developer switches employment every few months because they want to learn a new language. Acquiring a new language sometimes necessitates a change of employment. So they'll be changing employment as often as every 12 months.”

Recruiting juniors is a costly exercise if they move on in 12 months. Mentoring programs are essential to further and retain their development 

The recruitment process of a software company, to onboard and train juniors with no retention strategy, can make the process a costly exercise. “The challenge is to build mentoring programmes and distract your seniors from actually building the software so they can mentor juniors. It’s a very risky and high-intensity exercise,” says Van der Heijden.

South African techies are highly regarded overseas

The acute junior developer problem, according to Van der Heijden is also that companies are loathe to invest in a junior software developer for the first time. “As a result, they use work experience as a proxy for quality. It’s hard to get hired if you have no work experience, and this is especially true in the software development field.” 


Enter the AATE

Global technology companies, corporates, local educators and governments are strengthening the developer pipeline by investing in education and broadening the talent pool, and the AATE is one such example.

The AATE programme – co-founded by former Investec CEO Stephen Koseff – aims to rapidly grow the pool of available Cloud-certified technology skills to support the broader corporate market, while also helping to manage the ever-increasing cost of these in-demand skills.

As an early-stage supporter of the initiative, which is currently onboarding other corporate sponsors, Investec has provided seed capital to support the initial launch phase of the programme that targets unemployed university graduates.

“In South Africa, we have more than 600,000 unemployed university graduates,” says Laing. “If we take in 10% of graduates, who possibly studied the wrong degree or are just struggling to find a job – those are the 60,000 people we’re targeting for our academy.”

After an aptitude test is taken online, each successful candidate will be enrolled in a 12-month programme suited to their skill set. The AATE offers three learning paths: Cloud-certified software engineers, security engineers and data scientists.

Each accelerated learning track comprises two phases: the first consists of three months of intensive full-time training with the AATE. The second phase entails a nine-month internship, combined with part-time learning modules, which are supported by a mentor. A monthly stipend will be payable for the full 12-month cycle.

On completion of the programme, students will take the Institute of Chartered Information Technology Professionals (ICITP) board exam, that will provide them with a South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA)-recognised qualification in their chosen specialisation.

Graduates will also receive assistance to find full-time employment or gig work in their tech career, either with the company where they interned or elsewhere within the burgeoning tech job market. 


The time for African developers is now

While programmes like the AATE aim to solve the local dearth of tech talent, the training and development of technologists also opens up global opportunities for African developers.

“Understandably, there's been an overall funding boom globally for tech over last two years,” explains Van der Heijden. “As a result, tech companies sucked up all of the senior software developers from the San Francisco market. There’s no option now other than to look beyond the borders of that state,” explains Van der Heijden.  

Remote work became a thing during the pandemic, and it suited developers and companies. “The world became connected, and it pulled all the senior software developers into remote roles.”

“South African techies are highly regarded overseas for two reasons,” says Laing. “Generally South Africans are dedicated and hard-working. They also only specialise to a certain extent: the scope in which our experience has been built is much broader, compared to other techies around the world, who specialise and have a narrower focus.”

“If companies could move beyond what they know, we, as South Africans, would love European companies to hire South Africans remotely – it's good for the economy, it's good for the software developers and a global impact can be made. In the end, tech talent is now a global game and we’re excited that more South Africans could be given the opportunity to reach their full potential,” concludes Van der Heijden.


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