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02 June 2005

Factsheet 7 : Intermediate skills in ICT as important as high-level skills

Press Release

A major challenge for an analysis of the ICT workforce lies in the very volatile nature of ICT itself: as a group of technologies that are not stable and in a process of ongoing change. As the utility of ICT is discovered across different economic sectors, so these sectors will increasingly incorporate ICT applications and services and will require an ICT-skilled workforce. This situation leads to rapid changes in, and blurring of, sectoral boundaries, and also of occupational categories.

In 1991-2001 the size of the South African ICT workforce ranged between 45 000 and 60 000 employees. Most ICT workers were employed by the financial and business services (52.5%) and manufacturing (14.1%) sectors.

After 1996, employment of high-level ICT workers was highly unstable in comparison with general high-level employment. The significant fluctuations can be explained with reference to events such as Y2K and the subsequent sharp decline in the dot-com sector. This suggests that the ICT sector is more volatile than other sectors, and that ICT employers are more reactive to changes in demand.

In 2002, just more than half (52.2%) of all employed ICT workers held higher education qualifications (undergraduate and postgraduate degrees or diplomas), while a significant proportion (45.1%) held other qualifications. The size of the group without graduate qualifications emphasises the importance of intermediate ICT skills provided by (a) private training providers and (b) in-house training.

The qualifications profile of ICT workers is particularly illuminating since it reveals the internal shape of the industry. The high number of workers with intermediate ICT skills is reflective of an ICT economy that has limited expertise in R&D and technological development. This corroborates the current picture of the South African ICT sector as being more involved in ICT services and application of systems, rather than in the development of new products or utilities.

In terms of equity, blacks (Africans, Indians and coloureds) and women are under-represented in the ICT labour force. While the number of blacks and women in the ICT workforce has increased since 1990, the pace has been relatively slow. By 2000, black staff in the ICT sector was under-represented at the skilled and management levels. The dominance of white males, especially in the echelons of ICT management (87% male and 65% white in 2 000) continues.


Public and private training institutions produced about 16 792 people who passed ICT courses in 2001, and of these an estimated 3 561 have graduated from public higher education institutions (universities and technikons, but excluding technical colleges). Supply trends in higher education indicate that, over the past ten years, apart from some fluctuations, there has been a general increase in the number of graduates in ICT and related fields.

Particularly important is that in 2001, more than 75% of all people who acquired ICT-related qualifications obtained them from private institutions that offer courses at the pre-graduate level. It is clear that, although the higher education sector provides access to graduate programmes in theory-based ICT skills, more flexible private training organisations provide the bulk of focused professional training.

Most courseware offered by private ICT-training businesses is presented at post-school leaving certificate level (Matric). Less than 1% of all courses claimed to be targeted at the equivalent of a higher education qualification, such as an undergraduate degree level. The majority of providers do not require ? or do not indicate that they require ? entry qualifications. Viewed positively, this situation keeps open the opportunity for almost anyone to enter the ICT-labour market. On the other hand, it is potentially exploitative of people who are allowed to register and pay course fees, but who are unlikely to obtain the sought-after skills. Candidates completing such courses are also exposed to the market and may be caught out on the wrong side of an oversupply of particular qualifications.

However, private training driven by providers and the industry does allow for responsiveness to changing skills needs. Approximately 84% of courses offered by private ICT-training providers are of one week or less in duration. The short duration of most courses and the frequency with which they are offered enables corporate and individual clients to shape their training programme to meet their needs. A key problem that arises for new entrants to the labour market, who have completed only one or two short courses, is how to gain practical experience.

The traditional higher education institutions (universities and technikons) are critical to the training of high-level ICT workers, which produce a small proportion of graduates. Of these, only a small proportion pursue postgraduate study in ICT. This has serious implications for the supply of high-level ICT workers. Holders of these qualifications would be expected to specialise, conduct R&D, and to undertake innovative work. Furthermore the same postgraduates are critical to the staffing of higher education faculties in the ICT field. Of those who held postgraduate qualifications in 1999, whites constituted 69%, while Africans, Indians, and coloureds constituted 20%, 7% and 4% respectively.

Very little is known of the extent, content and intensity of in-house ICT training. It is presumed that in-house training takes place mostly in enterprises with the workforce size or financial resources to undertake the provision of such training. For these reasons, most small and micro enterprises are unlikely to be doing ICT-training in-house, leaving them dependent on private training providers.

The rhetoric around general ICT skills shortages is frequently exaggerated and would be best understood in terms of specific short-term scarcities in particular skills that can coexist alongside an oversupply of other skills in a specific sub-sector. Furthermore, there are claims of skills shortages that are not necessarily valid and are consequences of particular employment practices. For example, recruitment practices that involve raising entry requirements will reduce the ‘available’ pool of labour, and this in turn may be reported as a skills shortage.

Where experience is specified as a criterion, this may be an indication of the oversupply of particular qualifications, especially with respect to qualifications widely offered by private providers. For example, the Microsoft Certified Software Engineer (MCSE) qualification became increasingly popular, because it provided the type of ICT skills that were/are thought to be relevant in the labour market. But increased numbers qualifying with this certificate produced an oversupply, and enterprises started to require working experience in addition to the qualification. As a result, there has been a glut of unemployable MCSE graduates in the labour market. The over-subscription of MCSE qualifications was reflected by the relatively low-average incomes commanded by certificate holders.

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