The head of South African web hosting company 1-grid.com, Thomas Vollrath, says he would rather hire a driven 17-year-old with the ability to learn new skills, than a seasoned veteran.

Businesses in the digital age need to adapt quickly to new technologies, but upskilling to stay ahead of the technology curve can be expensive and time-consuming.

An effective strategy to address this skills gap is growth from within – a strategy that requires savvy management who can spot talent and provide mentorship to high-potential candidates.

“Upskilling young employees is a smart way of ensuring your business remains agile. Employees that take up new learning opportunities are hugely valuable, they have a broader understanding of the business and are more likely to stay with the company in the long term,” says Vollrath.

The relationship between an employee and employer is a two-way street.

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“Employees with the right mentor can quickly move up in a company and absorb new knowledge. At the same time, the mentor benefits from their commitment and ability to grow into different roles.”

According to the 2018 Deloitte Millennial Survey, 43% of millennials and 61% of Gen Z’s expect to leave the company they work for within two years.

The same survey shows that a company culture that supports flexibility, openness and mentorship goes a long way towards boosting staff loyalty.

Vollrath agrees that a management culture which supports individual employees to achieve their desired career path is the dominant reason behind high staff retention.

Software development, one of the most sought-after skills in South Africa is a case in point.

Unlike traditional professions, the learning content for a tertiary education in IT is often obsolete before the learner completes the qualification.

Many developers skip the four-year university degree and fast-track directly into their career through personal development and peer learning. Vollrath, says he’d rather hire and upskill a driven young person who knows how to code than an industry veteran.

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“Most great coders learn their skills through boot camps or online short courses. They enter the job market at a junior level, learning and growing in line with shifts in how software is written.”

Vollrath’s industry is dominated by young people – those who have grown up with the internet, smartphones and cybersecurity threats. It is a generation with skills that are sought after, but one that is particularly flighty when it comes to employment.