CIO Day 2023: CIOs put their heads together to solve IT skills shortage


Attendees share the obstacles their teams face – and offer solutions.

This year’s CIO Day theme was ‘Brain GAIN! The ultimate dialogue about talent and skills in times of AI’. The day started off with a bang, with attendees joining brainstorming sessions to talk about the single, biggest issue facing South Africa’s IT industry – the pervasive skills and talent shortage.

Across the groups, common themes emerged, such as: IT professionals not staying at an organisation purely on pay, culture fit often being more important than skills, the urgent need for collaboration between companies and organisations to create a talent pool, and a push for more focus on developing specialist IT skills at a younger age.

Participants were eager to share their concerns and challenges, and once the brainstorming sessions got going, conversations flowed and ideas began to spark. As peers discussed specific issues relating to their IT teams, there was a collective sense of relief when others nodded and said they were experiencing similar issues. Everyone also agreed that there simply wasn’t enough time to cover it all, and when the time was up, it felt like they were just getting started!

Purpose and socio-economic challenges

Culture featured heavily in many of the sessions, with a CIO remarking that he has made “horrific” hiring decisions in the past due to a poor assessment of culture fit. He added: “With a wrong hire the cost is seismic. It’s a refinement process, and sometimes there’s a disconnect with job descriptions. The most important questions to ask are, ‘Do our [the organisation and the individual’s] purposes align? What tools do I have at my disposal to assess them, and can they learn and grow?’”

Along with culture, tech leaders acknowledged the severe skills shortage within South Africa’s IT sector at all levels, exacerbated by factors like socio-economic challenges and emigration. They recognised the need for long-term, industry-wide solutions to attract and retain the best IT talent, and they highlighted the importance of recognising and developing this talent from a much younger age.

Another CIO echoed this sentiment, saying that CIOs should consider that Africa also has the youngest population in the world, and we should be breeding talent at a younger age by influencing the curriculum as early as primary school. He also shared that his group discussed the migration of skills, with some companies losing out to tech hubs in Holland, for example, or working remotely and earning dollars while living locally. He posited this may be due to a skills issue, or more of a broader SA Inc. issue. “It’s beyond us to fix from a political point of view, but these are hard truths,” he remarked.

One IT leader mentioned that the brain drain is an ongoing problem with senior staff emigrating, “To date we have lost 22 percent of staff, with most going to the Netherlands and the US. The struggle is real, because in most cases the European companies’ value proposition is better.” While there’s no simple solution to this, it was suggested that senior skills are scaled up to get these professionals to thrive at a faster pace.

Look beyond IT teams for skills

Adding to this, the participants discussed the value of building skills within organisations through internship programmes and government initiatives like the Youth Employment Service (YES). Many CIOs acknowledged that addressing systemic issues as well as creating a talent pool through collaboration between companies and organisations is essential. A few emphasised the need to invest in specialist skills at a young age, leverage the expertise of seasoned IT professionals to teach and mentor the younger generation, and ensure knowledge transfer before the experienced workforce exits.

A major point of discussion was pay – and how it’s becoming increasingly evident that big salaries are no longer a factor for retention. Several CIOs believed that employees could be motivated to stay with a company beyond the size of their bank balance, such as a vested interest in the company’s success, recognition, rewards, and flexible work hours.

A CIO commented that her brainstorming group’s conversation offered much food for thought. She said that while there’s global competition for IT skills and talent, a solution may be found in three ‘pillars’: education (partnerships with universities), organisations (mentorship and learnership programmes), and country (addressing systemic socio-political issues). It’s also critical to drive continuous learning within an organisation, as well as an apprenticeship culture.

“We can also look beyond IT teams for the skills we need,” she added. “Most of our organisations have a pool of people available – like business people who are keen to learn tech skills. Technology has been democratised; we need to take advantage of that,” she concluded.

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