That South Africa has a digital skills shortage is not a new observation. While technology and digital content are having a significant impact on how African people communicate with each other, work, learn, and transact, South Africa is severely lacking in the skills necessary to take advantage of these technological breakthroughs.
Elizabeth Mofokeng of Avatar Agency notes that there is a skills shortage across all digital disciplines, with the possible exception of social media. The digital landscape in South Africa is increasingly in need of niche specialists with a broad overall knowledge of digital – jacks of all trades, masters of one. This is particularly important in digital marketing because while someone might be a social media specialist, they will not be able to perform in a world-class way without a functioning knowledge of all other elements of work being done in their company and the ability to collaborate on that work.
Particular skills deficits pointed out by Avatar include UX, data and/or analytics specialists, mobile marketers – particularly important in a country where most internet consumption takes place via mobile – and even digital strategists and planners.
Because digital is the fastest-growing sector in marketing and the country has a high youth unemployment rate, a gap between graduation and employment should not exist, provided that students are being equipped with the necessary skills at tertiary level.
But is that happening?
Gaining an adequate education in the digital sphere is not easy in South Africa. Limited access to computers and internet make it more difficult for people to use free online tools to learn important digital skills, and the incredibly high unemployment rate makes it difficult for people to pay their own way at a formal educational institution. Even when someone does graduate with a degree declaring them in possession of important digital skills, they may still be lacking in important soft skills like emotional and social intelligence.
This, in turn, presents a challenge for digital agencies in South Africa. Agency growth rates are negatively affected when they cannot secure the right skillsets. According to Mofokeng, recruiting technical specialists is difficult, and combined with the growing necessity of digital practitioners with a broad knowledge of where digital fits into the marketing mix, agencies are having real trouble meeting client needs. For these reasons, the integration of digital and traditional marketing is slower to catch on than it should be, which impacts on clients as well.
Are educational institutions stepping up?
Proven experience often counts more than on-paper qualifications for many digital skills areas, such as data analysis, social media engagement, coding, and so on. This is fortunate since, in most educational institutions, digital is not really considered a significant part of marketing – even though, Mofokeng confirms, it is the fastest-growing sector in marketing. Some educational institutions introduce digital only at post-graduate level – and even when digital is covered, it is often done so with a dated framework that does not speak to the rapid changes in the field.
Digital pioneer and Red & Yellow Creative School of Business chairman, Rob Stokes, strongly believes that creativity is the most important skill for the 21st century, as a result of which Red & Yellow focuses on developing programmes that will teach students not only digital and business skills, but also the kind of soft skills that help bring creativity to the forefront, including leadership, adaptability, and social intelligence. He notes the importance of consistently creating and updating programmes to ensure learners have the knowledge and skills needed for a successful career in digital marketing. Learning programmes need to change at the same rate as the industry to remain relevant.
What still needs to happen
Because of rampant unemployment and the high costs of studying, matriculants gravitate toward careers that they see as stable, so they can pay off student loans, or where they can study with a bursary. Mofokeng points out this means many students go for safer alternatives like accounting, medicine, law, or even general marketing management; digital-specific institutions are somewhat unlikely to be funded because companies that fund students often do not see the value of digital in their organisations. As an industry, we need to work harder to ensure the opportunities and value of digital skills are promoted.
Agencies also need to work to help bring in new talent to the digital sphere. Many agencies are leaning toward learnerships where they partner with educational institutes that focus on digital, which also helps to reach those matric leavers who cannot afford tertiary education. Because digital is mostly skills-based and practical, agencies offering internships will also help to address this shortage.
Other industries bring in students to intern during their vacations, which helps to ensure they have the practical skills to apply the theory that they learn in tertiary institutes. Digital agencies doing the same would help students understand the specialisations available to them and ensure work-ready graduates.
And it goes without saying that educational institutions need to remain connected to the industry they serve and the ever-changing needs. Adaptability and evolving programmes need to be implemented to ensure material is consistently updated as the skills required morph and change.
The responsibility of closing this gap lies in a combined effort between industry and educational institutions. A recognition of the challenges and an acceptance of the responsibility we all play in meeting these needs, is what will ensure that we can get to a point where articles like this will no longer need to be written! I personally look forward to that day.
This story was first published in The Media Yearbook 2018.
Di Charton is a lecturer at the Red & Yellow Creative School of Business.