Widening ICT skills gap: Cause for concern
Like a damned river suddenly losing its fetters, the liberalisation of the telecoms industry more than a decade ago in Nigeria opened a flood gate of foreign direct investment (FDI) and employment opportunities, both directly and indirectly. These gains may be eroded by the widening gap of indigenous skilled manpower in the information communication technology (ICT). The continent will lose billions of its foreign exchange to capital flight through repatriation of profit by offshore skilled manpower, writes KOKUMO GOODIE.
The atmosphere could not have been more congenial as it was. It was the annual forum of the Association of Telecoms Companies of Nigeria (ATCON) where the chief execs of both major and fringe players in the IT and ICT sectors converge and cross-pollinate ideas with the regulator, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC).
It was held at the Golden Gate Restaurant, Ikoyi, Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital. Though his lean frame could dwarf his intelligence and eloquent voice, President, Association of Licensed Telecoms Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), Egr Gbenga Adebayo, cleared his throat and warned of the dangers lurking in the corner as the nation is consumed in the euphoria of the gains of liberalisation.
Adebayo warned that if current manpower issues are not addressed now, the nation may be running a network that will be professionally powered by foreigners in the next one decade.
“There is need for the promotion of local content in the industry. Unless this is done, in 10 years’ time, we will be running a network that will be provided by foreigners,” Adebayo warned.
More than a decade ago, the telecom sector was deregulated by former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s administration. The opening up of the sector has attracted about $35 billion in foreign direct investment (FDI) while jobs have been created both formally and informally.
Although one of the major operators in the country has claimed that it is manning its operations in the country with 95 per cent local skilled man power and had even exported indigenous manpower to other countries where the telco operates, sector analysts say there is indeed a gap in ICT skills, not only in Nigeria but also on the African continent.
Chief Executive Officer, Teledon Group, Dr Emmanuel Ekuwem, said the problem is real and not imagined. He averred that the depth of the deficit will become evident when job vacancies are announced, applications received and interviews conducted.
“When you sit on an interview panel for job seekers, you will see young Nigerians, so innocent looking but not sufficiently trained, you will come to the conclusion that the unemployment rate in Nigeria is caused largely by unemployability of people looking for job than by the unavailability of jobs or vacancies. You have to trace this back to the primary schools, secondary schools and the universities, colleges of education, the polytechnics. What state are the professors who dish out knowledge? In what state are the classrooms? In what state are the laboratories and workshops? The libraries, class rooms; in what state are the campuses and the entire learning environment. In what state are the staff quarters? How motivated are the teachers? How up-to-date are the professors? “They are intelligent and superb in their respective area of calling but for us in the telecom industry, technology is moving very fast, at the speed of lightening. You must read and update your competences, you must regularly update your knowledge; you must update yourself about a lot of things in the industry. That is why there is a saying that the world is moving so fast that you also have to run so fast to stay where you are.”
According to him, the schools’ syllabuses must be up to date while the academic institutions should be equipped with modern learning facilities. “How many of these universities are smart universities? How many of the polytechnics are smart polytechnics? How many of the secondary schools have smart classrooms? How many have ICT labs? How digital are the libraries? Do we have WiFi in the halls of residence? Do we have cybercafes on campus? Are students able to double click and visit the website of Oxford, Cambridge, University of Moscow, universities in Beijing, in Montreal, Canada? Have the universities, monotechnics, primary and secondary schools been penetrated by broadband infrastructure that will enable you have smart board to teach students with WiFi for internet access on their laptops and desktops. The more you bombard the human person through his sense of video, audio, sense of perception, the tangibility of objects and the broadband internet; you double click and log onto the websites of libraries, Google, or yahoo-yahoo on the positive side. The internet is the reservoir of knowledge. We should exchange resources. How many computers are available at these universities? Train the trainers. For technical education in particular, you will go down to your primary and secondary school; your physics, chemistry and biology, that is the foundation. Laboratories are vital for learning. How well trained are the people training them? Do they go for refresher course?” he asked rhetorically.
He continued: “How many mechanical workshops, for example, an electronics laboratory, communication, power macro electronics, computers, micro-processors, how many of the laboratories are smart with WiFi, projectors, multimedia or typical mechanical workshop where you have a drilling machine, welding machine, vices, hand saw, grinders, guillotine, electric welding station, gas welding station, air-condition and refrigeration, compressors.”
Regulator of the telecoms sector, the NCC is consciously taking steps to bridge the gap through some of its various initiatives.Initiatives such as Digital Bridge Institute (DBI) Advanced Digital Awareness Programme for Tertiary Institutions (ADAPTI) and Digital Access Programme (DAP) are funded by the regulator from the multi-billion naira pool of fund called Universal Access Fund.
To respond to new developments, the NCC created the New Media and Information System Department. Its Director, Dr Sylvanus Ehikioya, said the DBI is the manpower training arm of the body. “I can tell you that over the past two or three years, we have trained over 3000 Nigerian teachers and academia free of charge and each cost about N65000,” he said.
He said service providers in the country shun software produced locally because of their low quality. This again he traced to the academic institutions. Ehikioya said: “In terms of software development, it is a different ball game. In the first instance, you have to look at how many universities are offering computer science and how many of the computer science departments are competent in terms of modern software tools that are required in the industry.”
The dearth of ICT skilled manpower is a continental challenge. According to Mybroadband Newsletter, in South Africa alone, there is a shortage of between 20,000 and 70,000 high-end ICT professionals.
Speaking on the sidelines at a media round table in Johannesburg, South Africa during the SYSPRO Africa 2013 User Conference, Professor Andre Calitz of the Department of Computing Sciences at South Africa’s Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) Department of Computing Sciences, said graduates of computing sciences from the institution were being flooded with job offers as industry jostle scarce skills.
NMMU and Syspro are collaborating to address skills shortages in the business process management and Enterprises Resources Planning (ERP) space through focused courses and the use of mobile and new technologies to deliver training across Africa. The partnership has also resulted in the introduction of a new BCom Information Systems degree programme.
Prof Calitz said: “The ICT skills shortage in South Africa, specifically in the ERP field, is of national concern and industry is increasingly relying on tertiary institutions to address this skills crisis.” While industry has indicated growing ERP skills requirements, a limited number of tertiary institutions are offering education in the ERP field, he said.
Another scholar of NMMU, Dr Brenda Scholtz however noted that the skills shortage did not cut across all levels of ICT. “The shortage is mainly in development, business intelligence, business process outsourcing (BPO), data analytics, testing and quality assurance, and enterprise architecture,” she said.
Marketing Director at SYSPRO Africa, Meryl Malcomess, noted that as an ERP player, SYSPRO believed strongly in the need to develop ERP skills across the continent. “Thanks to mobile, you now see small business people and farmers able to become viable players within the larger supply chain.” However, without ERP skills, the benefits would not be fully realised, she said.
Also speaking at the round table, SABMiller Plc, subsidiary company of Syspro ERP customer Southern Sudan Beverages, James Mugeni said while ICT entrepreneurs were slow to emerge in Southern Sudan, skilled ICT professionals were returning to the country. Prof Calitz said several countries were seeing ICT academics and highly skilled professionals returning, but that the overall levels of technical and soft skills needed across the continent were not sufficient to meet demand.
SYSPRO’s collaboration with NMMU is in line with a growing need for enterprise to play a role in skills development and assisting tertiary institutions in delivering to market graduates with the relevant skills.
Noting the growing importance of mobile, Prof Calitz says he believes mobile apps can play a key role in delivering ICT learning and generating interest in careers in ICT. “By combining the lack of ICT skills, the massive global usage of the Internet and web portals, and mobile development, we can see that there has become a need for a mobile ICT career app. Currently, career apps tend to focus on recruitment, rather than education and career guidance. School children and students are not given enough ICT qualification information and career guidance and a possible way to get around this issue is to create ICT awareness amongst scholars and students using mobile apps.”
New Horizons Nigeria’s Chief Executive Officer, Tim Akano, said 85 per cent available jobs today are ICT and IT related. According to him, the firm is partnering with the university to prepare students for the challenges of the future.
According to data from the National Universities Commission (NUC), 250000 graduates are turned out annually while about 80 per cent never get employed. Statistics from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) show that 40 million Nigerian youths are unemployed. They could become self-employed with skills acquired and even stood the chance of getting jobs offshore if they are skilled in IT/ICT related fields..
The general consensus is that the private sector (business) and public sector (government) must close ranks and forge an alliance through the public private partnership (PPP).