Mixed messages and poor leadership coming from across government has failed South African entrepreneurs and economic growth, and there’s a vital need to improve access to IT and teachers’ skills in order to enthuse youngsters about technology and to encourage them to pursue careers in the field.

That’s the view of Adrian Schofield, manager of the Applied Research Unit at the Joburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE), a joint venture between the University of the Witswatersrand and the City of Johannesburg. Schofield made his comments while unveiling JCSE’s annual ICT Skills Survey report for 2014 this morning. Some 59% of businesses who responded to the survey said that the struggle to find skilled workers is actively damaging their companies in a major way. A further 28% of companies surveyed reported that the same issue was having a minor impact on business operations.

Schofield pointed out that this was entirely at odds with the current state of the economy.

“There should be a surplus of employees in quiet economic times,” he said, “International firms are retrenching up to 20% of their workforce, local telcos are downsizing. How does this gel with the idea that the demand for IT skills seems to be high? We live in a world of mixed signals, and a country of very mixed signals. The South African economy is stagnant, to put it politely, and held back for all kinds of reasons. People are unwilling to invest and that depresses the demand for skills.”

The Skills Survey report is now in its sixth year, says Schofield, which means that JCSE can start to look at longitudinal data looking at the differences in respondents opinions over time. Schofield said that the report is indicative of the “State of the Nation”, and that South Africa is missing out the opportunities of the knowledge economy to create jobs.

“We have an enormous failure in our education system,” he said, “We do not create enough enthusiasm and excitement for technology among young people to take part in the economy in the future. Schools need more access to kit and training to produce students who want to be entrepreneurs in the future.

“The government, in its approach to technology has failed South Africa seriously,” Schofield continued, ”Last week we had the ICT policy discussion paper published. We shouldn’t, in 2014, be discussing this.”

According to the report itself, the fight for highly skilled employees has seen a shift in recruitment practices away from advertising positions on the web to contracting recruitment companies who can identify suitable candidates before they are brought in for interview. The skills in highest demand are those in programming and testing jobs, with Java, C#, C++ and .NET experience the most highly valued.

Schofield’s colleague at JCSE, director Professor Barry Dwolatzky, says that the report highlights three critical issues that those working in IT must tackle. The first is gender imbalance, as four out of five respondees to the practitioners’ questionnaire were male – a ratio that’s proven static since the report’s inception.

The second issue, Dwolatzky said, is that more students from township backgrounds must be encouraged to take computer science courses – which many still don’t consider as a career path.

“They have no role models or chance of understanding the industry,” Dwolatsky said, “They are making career choices when they don’t even know this sector exists.”

The final issue, Dwolatzky said, is developing more programs like Coachlab, which seeks to mentor post-graduate students into leadership roles early in their career.

Also speaking at the launch of the report, the executive director of the Aspen Network for Development Entrepreneurship (ANDE), Randall Kempner, underlined the skills shortage issue. ANDE is an NGO which works to promote and encourage entrepreneurial activities as a means of accelerating economic growth in low-to-middle income countries.

“Most startups will say that the biggest problems are access to markets or funding,” Kempner said, “But the biggest problem is access to talent. Once you start to grow out your team it’s a big challenge. And it’s one thing if you’re in Johannesburg, but what if you’re an ICT firm in Mpumalanga or the Northern Cape? How do you find high quality workers with the skillset to compete globally?”

The huge shortages of skilled employees also cripples smaller firms who can’t compete against the paychecks and perks of large corporates.

“It’s hard to get people to join startups in developing markets because risks are huge compared to corporate life,” Kempner said, “Entrepreneurs need to find talent earlier on, through internships and on-the-job training. They need creative ways of keeping workers up to date with blogs and MOOCs and making low salary work attractive through different ways.”

Some 711 IT workers from all industries responded to the practitioners’ questionnaire featured in the Skills Survey, of whom 29% said that the majority of their training was “on the job”. Only 8% claimed that the primary source of “skills acquisition” was through a degree, and just 5% cited a diploma.

According to the Survey, the top five areas in which employers said there is most demand for skills were Software as a Service/Cloud Computing, Network infrastructure, Information security, Application development and Business intelligence, a list identical to the last report in 2012. The last includes data mining and roles related to so-called “big data” activities.

The report has not yet been published online. We’ll update with links as soon as possible.

Adam is the Editorial Director at htxt media. He has been writing about technology for almost two full decades now. In a previous life, he was the editor of PC Format and Digital Camera Shopper in the UK, before going on to work as a freelance journalist for seven years. His work has appeared in or on Stuff, The Guardian, Linux Format, TechRadar, Wired.co.uk, PC Gamer, Green Futures, The Journalist, The Ecologist and The Review. Adam moved to South Africa in 2012 and loves 3D printers, MakerFairs and tech hubs. He hates seafood. None of his friends remember this when cooking.