The shortage of quality ICT skills has been a recurrent theme in Liberia. Highly specialized skills required to automate processes are currently lacking and impossible to recruit anywhere in the country. This issue has several dimensions: a nation that is losing the war on illiteracy due to a failed educational system; a totally emasculated national labor market; other bearings of years of a 14-year civil unrest; and our unwillingness to embrace ICT as a significant driver of economic development and growth. And this shortage I put to you, is strongly in software design, programming, project management and software business consulting.
We have reached a stage when new breeds of ICTs continue to emerge. Advancements in computing paradigms: social computing, big data, business analytics, unified communications, mobile computing, cloud computing, and all other technologies require resetting the design and architecture of applications and user interfaces. The only response to these changes is the strengthening of human capacity across what we now have as an ICT sector, enhancing the skills and competencies of existing and potential members. Such an initiative will foster innovation, growth and enhance the capacity of companies and individuals to compete on a level playing field with the foreign competition.
The ICT skills shortage in Liberia, specifically in the area of computer programming concerns me a lot because computer science and software engineering significantly impact business automation. Business automation or automation as a whole is becoming or has already become the paradigm in the global economy.
Visit many of our ministries and other entities and you will find out that many of the ICT staff have never attended any ICT training or human capacity strengthening program since they graduated school. This particularly hurts their ability to innovate and perform because in ICT, things change faster than any other area. Remember “Moore’s Law?” The worst part about this is that there are not many ICT institutions in Liberia that provide the types of high quality skills needed for Liberian ICT professionals to work in “real” datacenters or ICT environments.
For example, assemble a group of ICT professionals in Monrovia; then ask them about certain technologies… say, Open Source Software or Cloud Computing. You would be astonished at the responses you would get. While this is not their fault, it presents a serious problem for the advancement of our ICT sector and our economy.
Why is this a problem for our economy? Well, the viral or widespread adoption of cloud computing, mobility and other technologies have driven fundamental changes in ICT paradigms. While we continue to struggle embracing ICT integration in Liberia, other countries have leapfrogged unto newer technologies that open possibilities for the development and growth of their economies. For example, the MTN Group, of which Lonestar Cell is a member, has been a driver if not a pioneer, of innovative technologies in Africa. In April 2013, MTN began the delivery of Cloud Computing Services in Ghana and Nigeria. It launched its “bouquet” of Cloud services in those countries and subsequently proceeded to the Cote d’Ivoire in August of 2013; an extension of that “bouquet” of Cloud services. The company plans to launch Cloud services in other markets including Uganda, Cameroon, and South Africa. These Cloud services being provided “enable business automation tools to enterprises across professional services, micro-finance, health and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) sectors.”
Anyone with a vision will agree with me that it is just a matter of time for Lonestar to begin delivering Cloud services in Liberia; a service I would like to see LIBTELCO provide. Yet, it requires highly skilled ICT professionals to run a Cloud Computing environment and as I said earlier, that’s something we are colossally lacking. So, what happens when Lonestar or Cellcom decides to start providing these services? Obviously, those companies will be constrained to seek the needed skills elsewhere, thus hurting our economy. How does it hurt our economy? When foreigners are brought to do jobs that Liberians should be doing, there’s capital flight… I would assume!
Many ICT professionals know that cloud computing is a given. It is now the key enabler of other disruptive technologies like social and mobile computing. Though cloud computing has become mainstream, many countries are still in the early stages of adoption. Liberia is not among those countries yet. And even if we have the infrastructure now to enable adoption, there is a possibility that we will be affected by the mounting skills crisis.
The problem is not that ICT professionals do not want to improve themselves. The problem is that the focus of their leaders is someplace else. For instance, in some organizations when the leader’s laptop is connected to the Internet where he or she can gain access to email, online news and Facebook, then it’s all good. Meanwhile, many of the processes in that building remain antiquated, although there’s a budget for ICT. Speaking of budget, another thing that hinders ICT infusion in Liberian organizations is their willingness to spend their entire budget on “Scratch cards” and ignore other important aspects of ICT, such as training. How does this help ICT infusion?
The point I am trying to make is that it is time we place focus on building human capacity for ICT to enable us enjoy the benefits it provides. And this should not only be about building large ICT schools, or adding to universities’ and colleges’ programs. It’s about ministers and directors investing in their ICT staff; high schools introducing ICT programs, businesses providing ICT scholarships, competitions and internship, and ICT professionals taking on the responsibility of educating themselves using the vast resources available on the Internet.
Also, universities and colleges need to collaborate with government and businesses to determine their needs and those of the economy’s. Through surveys, interviews and other research approaches, they will be able to garner the types of information needed to design their course offerings. I see most universities and colleges in Liberia with large business and public administration programs but yet, we don’t see a large Liberian business coterie. And how many public administrators do we need for a country that has fewer than four million people? Do we need more public administrators, or do we need technologist, engineers, doctors, et al?
Finally, the hardest thing about being an ICT professional is that you don’t enjoy the luxury of taking a break from learning. If you decide to take a break from learning or do not follow the trends, you are lost. Changes in technology are faster than any other area. What was a cutting-edge technology yesterday is an antique today. And that’s the same with knowledge of ICT. And this is why we must develop an environment that ensures continuous improvement and development of ICT skills.