The Way Business Is Moving published by
Issue Date: February 2008

Good skills gone bad

February 2008
Andrew Seldon

Commitment and responsibility are the starting points to solving the skills crisis, but everybody needs to buy into it.

It seems absurd that in a country with anywhere between a 20% and 50% unemployment rate (depending on who is doing the reporting), companies can constantly complain about a serious lack of skilled people. The fact, however, is that there is a global shortage of skilled people in the IT and other markets.
When looking specifically at the IT market, the need for good skills in South Africa is exacerbated by a constant stream of skills (black and white) leaving the country. Moreover, affirmative action quotas add another layer of madness to the problem by creating a generation of job hoppers with little to offer.
Malcolm Rabson, MD of Dariel Solutions, a local software development company, says there is no lack of skills in South Africa as it is easy to find people who have been through a 6-week course or managed to get a diploma or even a degree in some IT field. The problem, he says, is that these people are not up to the job in the real world. Those that are up to the task are rare and are headhunted before they can actually make an impact. The skills crisis is a shortage of good skills.
Malcolm Rabson
Malcolm Rabson
Headhunting job hoppers is a critical problem for local companies. On the one hand, it makes organisations hesitant to train and develop their human capital because they fear losing them before they can extract value from their investment. On the other hand, it makes salaries soar beyond any reasonable levels.
And while the 'headhuntees' will enjoy their time in the pound seats, they will eventually find they have had multiple jobs without gaining any real, new, sellable experience. And their lifestyles and salary expectations will also soon put them beyond even the most desperate companies' means.
Any company has to deliver a product or service to its customers and includes the costs of its staff in the invoice. In the competitive global environment today, one cannot simply increase prices to accommodate celebrity programmers you had to headhunt. Commonsense and commitment are in short supply.
As a company affected by job hopping and high wages paid by larger corporations and international concerns, Rabson believes companies need to be more responsible in the way they handle the skills crisis. Investing in training and coaching can take even mediocre skills and turn them into valuable assets, if one can rely on them to hang around for a while.
Julian Field, marketing director of Knowledge Integration Dynamics (KID), a business intelligence company, agrees that IT talent management is essential in today's market as the skills shortage has led to a great deal of poaching. Within the BI industry, Field says that skills demand exceeds supply by some distance and it is vital that companies with skilled employees embark on programmes to continually improve on their already acquired talent to ensure that they remain with the companies and do not leave for greener pastures.
Julian Field
Julian Field
"Companies must provide their skilled employees with further training to enhance their performance and to develop them as motivation to remain with the company," he explains. "Furthermore, companies must make use of training institutions to attract new talent and stem the skills loss, and take graduates with relevant degrees and provide them with further education and necessary practical experience."
Moving beyond the IT arena, the same skills concerns are evident in the middle and lower levels of management. To stay competitive - even just to get the job done - companies must rely on their front-line managers, which are made up of their middle and lower level management teams. If these people have never been trained, let alone coached, they will not effectively direct subordinates in the pursuit of the company's goals.
And with quotas and headhunting, many do not stay in one spot long enough to gain real experience by emulating their managers over time - as used to be the norm in corporations. This is obviously not acceptable and Simon Davies, lead principal at Partners in Performance International is a supporter of focused coaching and mentoring to bring new managers up to speed as fast as possible. By empowering these managers and improving the overall management capability of the company (getting the management wiring of the company right), Davies says productivity improvements of up to 20% are not unusual.
Simon Davies
Simon Davies
On a positive note, Davies notes that in the management realm, companies have learned that headhunting and encouraging people to play the job-hopping game benefits no one.
Everyone agrees that the need for training, coaching and mentoring is a given in South Africa. What all stakeholders must realise, however, is that these tasks cannot simply be dumped on the shoulders of business. Training institutions in South Africa must also take their responsibilities seriously and strive to produce quality candidates. And Government needs to come to the party as well.
It is profitable for training companies to shovel as many 'graduates' out the door as possible, but what happens to these 'instant programmers' or whichever career path they want to be in when they try to apply their limited skills in the workforce. Disenchantment on both sides is the result and the crisis of skills looms larger.
The only real solution is a concerted effort by everybody concerned, including Government, to improve the quality of all levels of education. When business can trust that the skills it thinks its hiring are in fact real and that they are not simply idling until the next offer comes in, it can then also focus on creating career paths and developing people over time. At the most basic level, everyone needs to commit to real upliftment and empowerment, and develop a new attitude of responsible behaviour and growth. And that, unfortunately, needs to be depoliticised and driven from the top.

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