Stories around skills gap have become an inconsequential buzz to some company men. But for HR professionals who are tasked with the job of getting and retaining top talent, it’s an earworm that keeps them up at night.

One of the more prevailing skills gap exists in the digital sector. In Africa – which is reputed to have the fastest-growing digital consumer market and the largest working-age population in the world – more digital solutions are being deployed which naturally engender an abiding need for digital skills.

Even with companies like Andela building coding capacity across five African countries and local governments’ effort to increase digital fluency (eg. the Code Lagos initiative of the Lagos State, Nigeria, Kenya’s Laptops for Schools project, and the Digital Ambassadors Program in Rwanda), employers across Africa are still plagued with inadequately trained workforce.

According to a World Economic Forum report from May 2017, up to 41% of firms in Tanzania and 30% in Kenya claim that skills gaps is a major impediment to their organizational processes.  On the other end of the spectrum, 9% in South Africa and 6% in Nigeria say that skills gap is less of an impediment.

The bigger picture however is that, regardless of how wide the skills gap appears to be right now, it will only get wider. The trend will hit the skids across Africa in the future as more jobs become higher-skilled with higher ICT intensity. A telling data point for the rest of Africa; 39% of core skills required across occupations in South Africa will be wholly different by 2020.

It gets only worse

Chances are that the results of the different stabs at digital upskilling initiatives might catch up with demands, but better odds are that it won’t. In many African countries, intensive ICT / STEM training is still not a core part of the curricula. As early as 2016, one percent of African children leave school with basic coding skill according to estimates by SAP, the enterprise software company.

So, as much as one might want to wish the gap away, the frantic calls from HR offices to headhunters and anxious sweaty-palmed scrolling through LinkedIn profiles will only get more intense in the foreseeable future.

Could there be a way, though, that companies would cut in front of the fated skills gap apocalypse?

Recalibrating talent hunt

As more African companies scramble to fill positions with digitally-fluent employees, perhaps the search lenses should be recalibrated and turned inward.

In the increasingly competitive market for talent, one way to save your processes from careening into mere anarchy is to retrain existing company resources. Some companies already explore this option.

Box, the file-sharing and collaboration software company, for example, found a viable pipeline for their solutions engineering vacant positions in their existing customer support team. A move that allowed them to fill open technical roles and also “retain the institutional and product knowledge our best-performing employees had already developed,” Matt Norton, Box VP of engineering explained in an interview. Flexport, a shipping software company has also explored this alternative as it tried to layer a smart solution on a stodgy shipping industry.

Schneider Electric which employs over 160, 000 people worldwide also offers dedicated academies for executive development, energy solutions, and other functional skills. For the company, it’s an intentional move to make the employees “stronger and more committed leaders of our organization in the future.”

It’s tempting to see these companies (and possibly others like them) as HR revolutionaries, but the idea of staff retraining is not new. And maybe these companies are revolutionaries in a contemporary sense, but until the 1990s, retraining ruled at companies like IBM.

The blink-and-you-might-miss-it zeitgeist of the 90’s IT-fuelled workforce compelled companies to start replacing old hands with workers offering new skills, instead of retraining.

An idea like this beguiles one to think that retraining solves the problems of HR frantic calls and Monday morning of breaking out in cold sweat. It does not.

The fact remains – and painfully so – that companies will not be able to retrain all staffers. More so, not all staffers will grasp the new concepts. Most high-skilled jobs like coding are academically very rigorous.

While a smart buffer,  a retraining strategy is hardly a permanent fix. But at least, you – the HR professional – can justifiably be free to crack a smile once in a while and scroll through LinkedIn with a little less angst.

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