The South African IT industry needs to move quickly to save the IT skills pipeline, or risk falling behind the world in terms of 4IR progress.

This is according to Senele Goba, Director of 4IR Innovations, founder of Ososayensi Education Advancement NPO and Board Vice-Chairperson and non-executive director of the Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa (IITPSA).

Goba, whose focus on education and development for girls and young women won her a place in a US State Department TechWomen programme for 2020, says there is an urgent need for support at school level.

“If we want more students to study IT, complete their courses and succeed in the industry, we need to support the subject in high school. When I took the course in university 20 years ago, I hadn’t had any exposure to IT at all. My classmates had taken computer science at school, so I was basically lagging by three years. Many students are still this far behind. We need that to change,” Goba says.

Goba says that while the public sector Education Department does define information technology as a school subject, the number of schools offering the subject is declining year on year.

According to the Department of Basic Education, the number of IT learners in all provinces has decreased since 2008, with drops of 66% in Northern Cape, 64.3% in KwaZulu Natal and 61.3% in North West province. Nationally, there is an average of only 12 IT learners per school, with the highest average – 14.6 – in Gauteng. Together, Gauteng and Western Cape accounted for 54% of IT learners in 2020. The race participation rate in IT should reflect national demographics, the Department notes. However, there is still a large portion of white (44%) and Indian (14%) learners, with the portion of African learners (34%) not reflecting the national demographics. By 2020, girls accounted for only around a quarter of IT learners.

“There seem to be various factors at play: some schools don’t have computer labs or are losing their resources to theft, there are still too few IT teachers, and one of the most pertinent challenges is maintenance gaps. Schools often don’t have maintenance teams – in fact, the educator must look after the computer lab and fix these resources, and it appears the Department of Education doesn’t have enough IT officers to support the schools.”

Running an IT lab isn’t cheap, she notes. “Free and low-fee schools really struggle to make ends meet, and they then need to raise potentially tens of thousands of rand a month for PCs, licences, connectivity and maintenance. While licence and connectivity support is available to many schools, maintenance remains a challenge.”

“The question is: how do we support teachers so they can deliver the subject without having to worry about other basic things like maintenance and security?”

Goba believes the solution is the creation of a forum to bridge the needs of educators to the support South African IT companies can offer. “For example, IT companies could volunteer the regular support of their IT technicians to manage maintenance. Because a relatively low number of public schools offer IT, this commitment would be manageable and could fall under the company’s CSI programme.”

“Coordination plays a role, and this is something we as the Institute could perhaps support. It couldn’t be a blanket approach, but we could look at where the most IT students are and where the greatest need is,” she says.