The recently released CEE Report on the state of transformation in South Africa was disappointing to say the least. Too little transformation has been achieved across organisations in South Africa, in particular at senior and top management. According to the latest statistics, top management remains majority white male with almost 60% of senior management also represented by whites. Although there has been a steady improvement in the middle management and technical skills levels on average, the experiences I see in highly specialist sectors and skills categories are not reflecting as much progress.

With an increasing focus by the Department of Labour in taking punitive action against non-compliant organisations, there is a very real need for companies to begin to ask themselves the difficult questions to understand why they are falling short of the goals set in their Employment Equity Plans. For me, there doesn’t seem to be any single factor responsible nor for that matter a single silver bullet to rectify the situation. Rather, it will take a concerted effort by organisations and the decision-makers within them to make different, and sometimes difficult, decisions to shake up the status quo.

Growth Areas

In a country with the conflict between escalating unemployment and a corresponding increase in skills scarcity, focus needs to be placed on the areas where job growth is going to be more tangible. Data Science, or 21st century business intelligence, is a rapidly expanding area with almost every business having to move into the realm of capturing, analysing and capitalising on the opportunities they present for business growth.

Unfortunately there is a dire lack of skill in this space with the majority of Data Scientists (as they are now known) especially those in middle, senior and top management, being 50-something white males. Attempts by organisations to recruit equity candidates into these roles are thwarted when candidates with the desired demographic profile do not meet the expectations set by the organisation. Arguably, their expectations have not yet been tempered with consideration to the realities of finding EE candidates with qualification, experience and exposure that would have been near impossible to have been accessible to them within our previous regime.

The Obstacles to the Transformation Goal

Based on my experiences, both long and recent, I believe that the challenge of upskilling and capacitating individuals to take on these more senior level roles relates to a combination of factors, laid out below for your input and comment:

1.Weak Education System

It’s a moot point, we know that our education system, in particular the public system available to the majority of South Africans, has not transformed sufficiently to produce individuals with the knowledge and skills to succeed in the 21st century. And this is particularly relevant in considering the data science realm where maths, IT and creative conceptual thinking are paramount.

Until we start producing youngsters with the foundations to access higher education in the STEM (Science Technology, Engineering & Maths) subjects we will continue to have a dearth of in-demand employees/skills.

2. Lack of Conscious Capitation

Companies are, in my opinion, managing skills development in the context of legislative compliance and not necessarily with a longer-term view. For true transformation success, organisations need to focus on capacitating individuals to take on jobs, not just in the immediate or next level, but for two levels up. Through coordinated, longer-term interventions organisations will be able to grow their own timber, building employees to fill their precise requirements.

3. Over-reliance on Aging Workforce

There are many highly competent and qualified individuals who currently occupy middle, senior and top management jobs within the business intelligence and data environment. Although most are in their fifties, changing lifestyles and the desire for individuals to work longer than the previously ‘normal’ retirement age means that many organisations are not currently experiencing the pain of skills scarcity, relying – or should that be over relying – on their existing employees.

4. Failure to Transfer Skill

Following point 3, this belief that the existing skills will remain for some time means that too few organisations have a formalised skills transfer strategy in place. The failure of HR to prioritise the strategic importance of this process, coupled with a reluctance on the part of the incumbent skilled individuals to render themselves dispensable, means that skills and institutional memory transfer will continue to hamper transformation attempts as younger candidates are not gaining access to the expected knowledge base to be considered suitable for these roles going forward.

5. Culture of Job-Hopping

Let’s face it, younger candidates are not helping themselves either. The new normal of moving jobs every year or two, causes employers to tread more carefully when it comes to investing time, money and energy in upskilling and capacitating these individuals. It’s a catch-22 because many of the reasons given by employees for why they change jobs relate to their perception of a lack of skills or professional development and promotional opportunities.

What’s the solution? Perhaps a more altruistic, industry-wide approach? Train individuals relentlessly, especially those PDI, regardless of whether you know if they will stay with you indefinitely. Formalise your skills transfer and capacitation programmes incentivising existing senior employees to achieve this transfer of knowledge. And the swings and roundabouts of what will become a must-have skill for every business, will mean that the South African corporate landscape will be better equipped to take advantage of the opportunities necessary to drive greater economic growth that will, in turn, provide employment opportunities for more South Africans of all skills and backgrounds.

Let’s chase transformation, but with a mapped route and a clear GPS tracker to measure our progress.