How can we narrow the ‘achievement employment gap’ among SA’s tech talent?


We’ve all heard about the IT skills shortage. We also know that we need to encourage students into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects, but do we know what our IT students experience once they’ve completed their studies?

For a small handful, their IT qualification is a golden ticket to a great job. The large corporates and big consulting firms hotly pursue the top students, particularly Honours graduates. There are even signing bonuses being thrown around, to encourage the small handful of A-List students to accept these companies’ job offers.

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This is all well and good for these students. They have put in a lot of work to get their marks, and it’s fantastic to see industry respond with good starting salaries and excellent packages. But the feeding frenzy for these top few seems out of proportion to what happens a few percentage points down the achievement scale.

For most graduates, getting that first job is a hard slog through dozens of rejections, with the most common reason being that companies are looking for experience as well as qualifications. The classic Catch-22: you can’t get a job because you don’t have experience, and you can’t get experience because you don’t have a job.

Making this process even less equitable, is the simple fact that good grades at university or college is not the same as actual job performance. A good software developer has problem solving skills, good communication and understanding, and hopefully, a good work ethic. A good student may have all these attributes, but their marks only guarantee that they can perform well with learned material under exam conditions.

Of course, good students may be fantastic in the work place – all I’m saying is that it’s not guaranteed to work like that. We need industry to spread their net wider, much wider, when looking to hire graduates. The current frenzy to take the top students is not doing the IT industry any good. It’s created a new employment gap based on grades, and this won’t help us to address the skills shortage.

How can we encourage Matriculates to pursue STEM careers like IT, and then turn thousands away at the final hurdle? Up to 40% of students across all disciplines cannot find employment in the first six months of completing their qualification. Diploma students fare the worst, with university graduate unemployment dropping to 12% (based on stats from the Centre for Development and Enterprise).

This is such a lose/lose situation for all concerned. Clearly, it’s terrible for the graduate, but industry is also losing out on a large potential talent pool. These are young, bright, enthusiastic people, and we need to find a better way of bridging their studies and real-world employment.

Those companies that offer internships are part of the solution. An IT internship allows the graduate to get experience on the job, and to forge relationships within the workplace that help to open the job market doors. Not enough large corporates have taken up the challenge of providing internship opportunities, but we have plenty of smaller IT consulting firms who are opening their doors and actively growing the IT skills pool in South Africa and also benefiting as a result.

I’ve called this discrepancy between top achievers and the rest the “Achievement Employment Gap”. It’s a false gap, created by companies who are not investing in the broad spectrum of newly qualified IT students, but are pinning their hopes on the top few. The hope for addressing this gap lies mainly with the companies who are providing internship and work experience opportunities. The next time you hear anyone bemoaning the skills shortage in IT, maybe ask what they are doing to solve it?

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