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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM

A Perspective on the IT Industry in South Africa

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Information technologists in South Africa come from any number of backgrounds and disciplines. Sheer market pressure may shift a career into the IT domain. A perspective on the South African IT industry must include several points of view, beginning with training. All specialists require some kind of training, be it formal or informal. With training comes the necessary assessment of quality that is usually measured according to international standards and accreditation. The employment issue is another valid point. There is indeed a shortage of skilled, and more importantly, experienced information technologists in the South African market. The current demographics of the IT industry, and how training is addressing this issue, is another pertinent factor.

IT training. A simplified model of formal IT training is based on levels. Many companies or institutions train employees for a specific job by offering courses for which the employee is then certified. Sometimes employees take the initiative by enrolling in classes in order to receive a certificate. With this documentation they can apply for IT-related jobs not necessarily in the same discipline for which they are certified. Tertiary training may be followed by either attending a technikon or a university to receive a diploma or a degree.

There are two main streams of diploma- or degree-holding technologists working in South Africa's IT community: those with commercially based training and those trained on a more scientific level. A number of professionals come from the engineering discipline. To cater to this sector, computer-engineering degree programs are beginning to emerge nationwide. To address the industry's need for specialized IT managers, a new, tailor-made degree has been developed where students spend their senior year in a corporate environment for hands-on experience and learning.

Finding employment. Both the Web and traditional print media are popular for recruitment in South Africa, as is personal recommendations. Universities advertise positions in the Sunday papers, on the Web, and via a lecturers' forum mailing list. In addition, industry uses what is termed "body shopping companies," where companies resell contractor services.

Recruiting experienced personnel or contractors is problematic for both academia and industry. In the industrial sector, many of the experienced personnel are working on international projects and are therefore not available. In the academic sector, the experienced personnel are attracted by industry's higher paying jobs. Industry loses its personnel to international organizations where their experience is required and where they are able to supplement the work force in that particular country. Few international people apply to work in South Africa. If they do it is usually on a temporary basis. This could be attributed to the low remuneration in South Africa.

Many graduate students do occasional programming jobs. Finding full-time students for post-graduate studies is becoming more difficult and challenging. The backlash is that potential academics do not qualify to the level required by academic institutions. Industry money is a huge pulling force.

With education becoming available for all, the number of non-white students graduating with IT degrees is increasing. Moreover, the male-to-female ratio of these students is even.

To bridge the gap of IT knowledge in industry, employers are finding it necessary to create their own work force. They identify employees with great potential (whether or not they have an IT background) and train them for specific jobs. Without contractual obligation, these in-house trained people tend to move to greener pastures at the first opportunity.

Demographic trends. There are two areas of significance in the demographics of the IT industry in South Africa. The first runs along racial lines and the second along gender. With education becoming available for all, the number of non-white students graduating with IT degrees is increasing. Moreover, the male-to-female ratio of these students is even. In the white population, however, the gender distribution remains slanted: today, one out of every five white IT graduates is female.

In conclusion, there is a need to keep qualified IT professionals in South Africa and to keep South Africa abreast of the rest of the world regarding IT. In general, the education of information technologistsspecifically at tertiary levelis internationally competitive. Indeed, South Africa is producing graduates for international markets. The current challenge, however, is not only to retain graduates in the country, but to attract others to return and to draw more skilled people from other countries.

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Linda Marshall ( is a lecturer in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.

©2001 ACM  0002-0782/01/0700  $5.00

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