On 16 December 2017, President Zuma announced that the government would subsidise free higher education for poor and working-class students. President Zuma said, “Having amended the definition of poor and working-class students. The government will now introduce fully subsidised free higher education and training for poor and working-class South African undergraduate students. Starting in 2018 with students in their first year of study at our public universities.”
According to the President, poor and working-class students are “students currently enrolled at Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) Colleges or university students from South African households with a combined annual income of up to R350,000.” Students attending these colleges or universities will now receive government grants, not loans. The grants will also cover accommodation, food and transport costs.
Will this Initiative be the Silver Bullet for Skills Shortages?
As much as we applaud the roll-out of free higher education. We are not convinced that this initiative will be the sole solution to the skills shortage found in certain sectors. Particularly in the telecommunications sector.
The telecommunications industry, particularly the provisioning of VoIP services, is growing quickly but skills are scarce. This obviously creates opportunities and jobs for individuals with technical and development (programming) skills. But companies still struggle to find candidates with strong skills and practical experience.
According to the Department of Labour, the Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) sector is “the ‘producer sector’ of the OCT (Overseas Countries and Territories) goods and services which are applied in countless business and personal environments.” The ICT sector is one of South Africa’s top employment sectors, and development skills are some of the most wanted skills according to Career Junction. But the demand is not being met – the demand for IT skills is about 27%, and the supply is only about 7% (Business Tech).
At Switch Telecom, we continually experience this shortfall. There seems to be a big gap between the demand for skilled developers and engineers and the number of people who measure up.
Across the industry, graduates don’t have the necessary basic technical skills or there just aren’t enough skilled individuals to meet the demand.
Offer Free Training for Specific Industries
Free education at TVET colleges and universities will not readily solve the telecoms skills shortage. It would be far better if more people were offered free training geared towards a specific job or industry.
The government should engage further with the business sector on which skills are most needed. We believe that specialised courses with the focus on practical experience. Subjects with a technical focus would better serve the youth than certain degrees currently on offer.
We would also like to know if potential ICT sector candidates are being properly informed about their options to become, for example, PHP developers or asterisk engineers. Are students being guided onto the correct career paths?
The government should focus more on identifying the industries where skills are most needed and allocate interested students to these sectors.
At Switch Telecom development and training is one of our core values. We continually contribute to the upskilling of our staff and we contribute to external ICT training initiatives. Unfortunately, these measures can’t fill the void when it comes to the skills shortage in our sector.
Free tertiary education is a step in the right direction. There is, however, so much more that can and should be done to solve the skills shortage in the Telecommunications sector.