More skilled workforce required to sustain growth in the ICT industry

Written by Melvin Farrugia, MITA Social Media, PR & Communications Executive

The eSkills Malta Foundation has collaborated with FIT – a similar organisation based in Ireland – to conduct a study about the ICT skills that are required by the industry. The Executive Coordinator of eSkills Malta Foundation, Mr Carm Cachia gives us an overview about the ICT Skills Audit.

Can you explain what this study is about?

We refer to this study as the ICT skills audit, because it helps us understand what skills are required by the industry. Sometimes, it is also called the supply and demand monitor as it should provide a regular update about the market needs and the supply currently available.

Through this study, we engage with the industry and understand what ICT skills are required at present and what will be required in the future. The study explores several aspects, namely the innovative technologies that will be used by IT companies, the possibility that companies employ more workforce in the next 18 months and the level of skills required by the industry.

We also examine how the educational system is supplying the required skills. The study makes an elaborate analysis of the Maltese educational system, taking a holistic approach rather than focusing on the educational institutions providing the required skills. The reason is that most universities and colleges teach theoretical concepts, rather than focusing on actual skills that will be used on the job.

Finally, the study brings out a set of recommendations on how the country can address this situation.

How is the local situation when it comes to ICT skills?

Unfortunately, it is not a rosy situation. As in many other European countries, we lack skilled workers required by the industry. In fact, in Malta there are around 600 vacant positions in ICT related areas.

Even on a skills’ level, we have the same problems like other European countries, where students coming from the educational system do not have all the skills required to work. This means that companies must retrain their workforce before they can do their job; help them to get oriented to the environment and develop the right attitude and behaviour towards work.

So, the local situation is like that of the rest of Europe?

Yes, it is similar. However, the effect on the Maltese industry might be felt more because our industry is healthy and the Maltese economy is growing very fast. For this reason, many companies – mostly from the gaming sector – are opening business and operating from our country, thus requiring large numbers of workers. However, when I talk to people from other countries they all talk about the same problem.

How was the study conducted?

eSkills Malta Foundation has chosen to collaborate with FIT, which is a similar organisation based in Ireland and that has already conducted this study twice in 2012 and in 2014. We did not want the study to be conducted by anyone who does not have knowledge about the industry. Studies conducted so far were more on a higher level, which identify the skills required rather than the technologies needed. The only way to conduct such a study was through someone directly involved in the sector or by ourselves. We wanted this study to be independent and so we opened our doors to FIT. Although we helped during the interviews, we left them mostly on their own so that we do not influence the result. FIT took a very good sample and conducted long interviews with each respondent.

What were the main conclusions derived from this study?

The primary conclusions were somehow expected. For example, approximately 67% of the workforce required by the industry needs to have associate level qualifications and not be IT experts. Experts require a degree, whereas associates require a diploma or specialised courses such as industry certifications.

Although the impression was that the industry requires degree levels or higher, when the companies were asked further questions on the services they require, it emerged that after companies need workers who can deliver what is required from them and this can be achieved through workers having a diploma. This is the advantage of conducting a face to face interview, rather than using a survey to collect the information.

We also discovered that there are around 600 vacancies in the ICT sector. Most of them are for software developers, although others are related to security, system administrators and much more. The perception might be that there are more than 600 vacancies available, because there are other vacancies which are indirectly related to ICT. For example, in the gaming industry there are certain positions which require a knowledge in ICT, but the work is not directly related.

We also need to distinguish between the gaming industry and the rest of the ICT sector. Whereas the gaming sector requires specialised workforce, this is not always the case for the rest of the ICT sector. If we consider marketing for example, it is different from the digital marketing undertaken by ICT companies. However, most of the technologies and skills used in gaming are like those used by the rest of the ICT companies and therefore the requirements are also the same.

More than half of the respondents agree about the importance of continuous provision of education at tertiary and lower levels. Unfortunately, around 66% of the respondents are not confident that these issues will be resolved. We understand their concern because when you consider the number of workers required and the number of professionals generated by our educational system, these do not add up.

In the next 18 months, 75% of the companies will be employing more workers. Some said that they will employ two workers, others will employ 10 workers and some even 50 workers. The local ICT companies employ many workers and when they try to emerge into foreign markets they employ even more.

Finally, it was confirmed that around two thirds of those who are employed do not have the required employability skills. These have nothing to do with ICT skills. It is unfortunate that we are still lacking skills such as multi-tasking, communication, English language proficiency and other important soft skills. This means that although students are spending long years at university or college, they are still not capable of communicating well. Other results show that students are not prepared to work as a team, which can be coming from our educational system that does not always promote teamwork.

What shortcomings have you come across?

Certain skills are not directly related to ICT but are still very important for a person to use at work. These include problem-solving skills which are important for developers and technicians.

Multi-tasking is another important skill which is lacking. Somehow, we are built to do only one thing at a time and get confused when doing more jobs at a time. This affects employers who must employ two people to do the job rather than having one employee doing more than one task.

We are also missing certain technical skills. Our educational system focuses on proper skills such as development, but does not focus on technical skills such as systems analysis, interviewing skills and project management. It can happen that we attribute that an intelligent, technical person can do all the other things. This is not the case. In other countries, business analysis is very large, but in Malta the same person is encouraged to do all the work. Although it is important for companies to be agile, however it is not always the case that a person can excel in all tasks.

Another incorrect argument is that you need to have strong mathematical skills to work in IT. If you consider for example designers, they are highly requested by gaming companies who look for creatives to improve the user experience and ultimately improve their product.

One of the major factors emerging from the study is that many people being employed do not have a broad set of skills.

Were there any positive outcomes?

Results show that our situation is not different from that of the other European countries, which means that we are not doing something worse. Many companies investing in Malta are enthusiastic in making business in our country, although they are facing these challenges. They are motivated to find new markets although they are constrained by the limited amount of human resources. Even the fact that these companies want to employ more people means that the industry is meant to grow. Many companies have big plans for their future here in Malta.

Another positive aspect is related to education where certain developments have already started. In some cases, students are offered schemes to continue their studies. The introduction of vocational courses can also help students to engage themselves through practice rather than through traditional learning. The challenge is to test that the level of education has been reached.

What are the next steps to be taken to tackle the skills gap?

Unlike other reports, we decided to put the recommendations at the forefront of the report so that readers can immediately understand what the challenges are. Some recommendations will be addressed by our foundation, while others are targeted towards our shareholders, namely the Malta Communications Authority, MITA and the Ministry of Education and Employment.

We want the report to be endorsed and taken seriously, as it contains important research about the future of business and information related to the European Union. We do not want the report to be shelved. For this reason, eSkills Malta Foundation will be creating a set of tasks for each recommendation and we will follow who should address them. We will also try to measure the progress done over time.

Some recommendations are targeted and it is easy to identify who should address them. For example, one recommendation is to tackle the short-term lack of workforce through boot-camps and crash courses related to specific skills required by the industry. Students who attend for these courses should be prepared for what the industry requires.

Another recommendation is to organise more technology forums, where ideas and developments about emerging technologies can be shared. In this way, the educational system can take the necessary provisions to prepare students accordingly.

Collaboration is another important recommendation. As a country, we tend to keep our projects secret, with the consequence that certain developments made by one company are not known by another. This leads to duplicate or conflicting efforts.

Why was this study so important?

This study is part of the mandate of the foundation which should be conducted at least every two years. We wanted to go into detail about the technical skills required and wanted to feel the needs of the ICT industry. We feel that until this day there had never been anything similar which has been shared publicly. We tackled around 20 different professions in ICT of which some overlap each other.

What is the worst scenario if this report is ignored?

If the recommendations are ignored, the chances are that our industry starts to degenerate because a lot of companies start looking to operate from elsewhere, stop investing in Malta and our local companies employ foreign employees. Consequently, the industry would lose economic confidence and we would start lagging compared to other countries. Malta has a great potential to grow but we need to take the necessary provisions to sustain this growth.