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South Africa needs a creative bag of tricks to solve its skills shortage

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Styli Charalambous is the CEO and co-founder of Daily Maverick, having joined the effort a few months before launch in 2009. Over the years, he has studied media models and news innovation efforts. He has also helped launch various projects and products within the Daily Maverick orbit.

Daily Maverick is fortunate to be growing. We have a policy of reinvesting our wins into delivering on our public service mandate and that means adding to our team whenever we can. We currently have about six vacancies that we’re recruiting for ranging from designers and developers to account managers and publishers. And among the hundreds of CVs we get, we’re struggling to fill these positions with the mavericks we need to write the next chapter of our story. In a country with 35% unemployment, we have the double whammy of a skills shortage that is yet another paradox from South Africa’s box of tricks.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

At first glance, it would appear that the “brain drain” is the major culprit. According to data by Pew Research Centre, 900,000 people born in South Africa were living abroad in 2017. That number would easily surpass the one-million mark the next time the research is conducted. At the same time, more than four million people have moved to South Africa but it’s clear that we’re not replenishing at the same skills level as those who have left.

The news industry’s woes are not new to this publication or this column. We have offered our take on how to address some of these issues, none of which are short-term wins. Compounding the general skills shortage, the news industry has lost 50% of its employed workforce in the past decade, something that has mirrored the rate of decline in industry revenue over the same period, which further affects the ability to entice new people into the industry.

With the latest rounds of retrenchments and closures of media organisations due to Covid-19, one might have expected to fill these positions easily. But this hasn’t been the case. In cases where underperforming colleagues are let go, the high performers who remain are reminded on an almost daily basis how lucky they are to have their jobs in a Stockholm syndrome scenario.

This isn’t unique to news media as this rhetoric is drummed into staff at almost every large corporate we have interviewed people from. And who can blame them, in Covid times, when everything seems so fickle and uncertain?

Developers have been in short supply for some time now. Ahead of the great 2020 work-from-home revolution, local software developers have been gainfully employed by foreign corporates without leaving South Africa. The upside is that they aren’t completely lost to the country and spend their hard currency pay cheques in the local economy.

But we’re also seeing a rise in other professions seeking and landing work-from-home employment from larger economies such as Europe and, judging by anecdotal evidence, this is likely to replace any reduction in Covid-induced emigration numbers.

Looking at all of the above, we are left scratching our heads as to how we could possibly solve the skills problem, garnished with the extra spiciness that the news industry has to offer. And that’s before we even attempt to fill new positions in data science, e-commerce, product management and audience development (a new, but increasingly important skill set in newsrooms).

Because the problem is multifaceted, the solution is unlikely to be a single silver bullet. We have to rebuild the pipeline of new talent coming into the sector, offer subsidies to stimulate support for essential skills and entice experienced professionals to the industry. We have to grow our own timber to replace the entire generation of journalists who have been lost to political and economic hijacking, and to try to entice the hordes of skilled professionals who vacated the sector.

The entire media ecosystem needs repair and, to do so, we need the support of the government in the form of incentives and tax breaks, business in the form of commercial support and public in the form of reader support. Our skills problem mirrors that of the country’s – and both need creative solutions to arrest the problem. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

 

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  • There is not a skills shortage in SA, just an economy hamstrung by a lack of investment due to Government policy uncertainty and BBEEE / political correctness. I know of many skilled people in STEM areas that have struggled or are struggling to find work – wrong colour – and have now emigrated or want to.