While the lifting of international travel restrictions, put in place in early 2020 to curb the spread of COVID-19, would be great news for the travel industry and the wider economy, the move would likely further exacerbate the already critical shortage of cybersecurity skills in South Africa, writes Simeon Tassev, Managing Director and QSA at Galix Security Solutions.

While the skills dearth in the local cybersecurity space is nothing new, the lockdown and the subsequent adoption of the Work From Home (WFH), as well as the acceleration of digital transformation driven by the pandemic, are putting additional pressure on a very limited skills pool.

As international travel bans lift, it could well result in a mass exodus of cybersecurity skills as these professionals are likely to seek ‘greener pastures’ in more mature markets that also need to fill their own security skills gaps. Currently, the threat of a second wave of COVID-19 is the only thing that is preventing our cybersecurity skills from being further depleted.

South Africa’s chronic lack of cybersecurity skills is also as result of a lack of dedicated educational programmes at tertiary education level, where this type of specialisation is simply not offered. To become a cybersecurity specialist, graduates must complete generic courses offered by industry bodies, or similar organisations, but only after attaining a solid base of IT skills, for example in the areas of basic infrastructure, networking or operating systems.

No specific certification

This adversely affects the influx of cybersecurity skills within the IT industry, as it limits security specialisation to those who have built some knowledge and experience in another field of IT. The challenge here is that there isn’t a specific certification or educational programme or single skill that covers all aspects of cybersecurity. Hence, these skills need to be developed over time and with practical experience.

Another key consideration is that the cybersecurity landscape is extremely dynamic, with new technologies, exploits, techniques and trends coming to the fore every 12 to 18 months. Individuals entering this field are challenged to not only learn basics of cybersecurity, but to also keep up with the rapidly changing technologies and evolving threats. Thus it requires a significant investment to develop those skills and maintain them.

However, this isn’t solely a local trend. Internationally, the cybersecurity skills gap is such that organisations are poaching skills from less mature markets and developing countries, often with the lure of more money. We are at risk of bleeding skills to First World countries as people often seize these opportunities without giving due consideration to the cost of living or amount of work they expected of them in their new role.

Hindering internships

From a local skills development perspective, the pandemic also scuppered many companies’ internship programmes, which saw junior resources being trained and mentored by experienced cybersecurity specialists. With the WFH trend, this has become too challenging and inefficient in many instances and the current increased security demands mean that companies would rather hire a senior specialist who can deliver from day one.

All these factors have severely compounded effect on an already critical skills shortage in cybersecurity, as demand for these expertise has increased fivefold overnight due to the ongoing pandemic. At the same time, financial pressure has seen many companies do away with annual bonuses, while increasing employees’ workloads, triggering the natural human response of needing to seek ‘greener pastures’.

With a bigger shortage of cybersecurity skills, South African companies are likely to look to outsourcing or outsourced managed services to fill the gap. There are various geographies geared for this type of demand, with India being a primary country to supply cybersecurity skills. Alternatively, South African companies will look to the few skills in Africa and attract them to the local market.

To stave off an even greater challenge in future, the local IT industry should look at forming communities that will encourage the younger generation to enter the field. A greater understanding of cybersecurity must be fostered, as well as a culture that supports local employment opportunities to show that the grass is not always greener on the other side. This might not be enough to solve the problem, but it’s a step in the right direction.

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