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Brain drain: 'We are in denial'

Brain drain: 'We are in denial'

Date: August 31 2008 at 12:26PM
By Eleanor Momberg
Source: News - Front Page Brain drain 'We are in denial'
This article was originally published on page 3 of Sunday Independent on August 31, 2008

The shortage of skills in South Africa is more serious than was believed and the full effect of the lack of expertise is yet to be felt.

Economists, researchers and industry insiders believe that the shortage of skills is the biggest challenge faced by the economy.

Companies complain that they are unable to meet affirmative-action quotas because of the shortage of qualified black people.

Emigration, early retirement and quitting because of deteriorating working conditions and relatively low wages are said to be to blame for the lack of skilled human capital.

"We are going through a period of denial as far as the skills shortage is concerned," said Azar Jammine, the chief economist for Econometrix. "By continuing to deny the problem, we are doing more harm than we will ever know because we are destroying the ability to persuade young black South Africans that the way forward is to get educated."

Jammine said that though the country was not in a situation in which there were no people to do the work, companies were being forced to use under-qualified and inexperienced staff and this resulted in lowered standards.

The skills shortage in government departments was aggravated by employment equity requirements, which had resulted in the private sector attracting government workers. The public sector was thus collapsing, while the private sector was thriving.

According to the National Remuneration Guide, published by Deloitte and Touche in February, about 81 percent of companies experienced difficulties in recruiting staff because of the skills shortage.

"Seventy-six percent of respondents said that they had experienced a scarcity of affirmative-action candidates. While there is certainly an unemployment problem in this country, a survey like this shows that there is a lack of skilled people in specific fields.

"Most of these categories require a level of experience that many unemployed people do not have," said Louise Marx, a Deloitte and Touche spokesperson.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the deputy president, earlier this year admitted that South Africa's skills problem remained massive.

"The scale of the problem has become bigger. There's a need for us to up our game," she said at the release of the Joint Initiative for Priority Skills Acquisition report.

Trade union Solidarity said in its report on the skills shortage in South Africa that, for as long as no attention was given to the problem, "it will be affecting the state's performance as well as the economy's ability to compete on the world stage".

Solidarity and Cosatu believe that the biggest problem is the education system, in which many children and teachers are unable to perform satisfactorily because of a lack of resources.

Jammine and the department of labour said head-hunting had become a huge industry and this was the reason for the lack of advertising of jobs. Most positions advertised were government posts.

The department of labour ran a free employment services system that registered 169 059 work-seekers and 15 364 job opportunities in the past financial year. Of the job seekers, 19 266 found employment.

The lack of advertising created the impression that all was well.

But, said Jammine, "I think the problem is more serious than people believe. We are still not seeing the full effect of it and will only feel it in five to 10 years' time."

Sam Morotoba,the deputy director-general of the department of labour, said a major problem for the government was getting companies to list their vacancies on the employment services and job-matching system.

"If they really want to deal with the problem, companies must come to the party. Who do they expect to solve the problem?"

Morotoba believes that many companies are paying lip service to skills development and were intent on poaching people from institutions that offered training.

He said the labour broking market should be investigated to determine its contribution to the brain drain.

"They are thriving in the midst of confusion. The role they are playing … needs to be investigated."

The ministry of public service and administration said it was difficult to provide accurate data on skills shortages in the public service because of decentralisation. A skills auditing programme was being introduced.

In an effort to retain staff, the public service had introduced occupation-specific dispensations for, among others, health professionals, educators, social workers, certain categories of legal professionals, prisons officials, engineers and architects.

"We were successful in obtaining resources from the Indian government to assist with the enhancement of skills of South African public servants," said Ramona Baijnath, a ministerial spokesperson.

Based on data received from government departments, and from the government's salaries and human resources database, on January 31, 86 percent of government-funded posts were filled.

"The highest number of vacancies is for administrative-office workers - 19 percent. But at least 31 percent of the vacancies are in the combined occupational categories of professionals (including physical, mathematical, engineering science, life science, legal, health and nursing), technical and associate professionals," she said.

The department of home affairs issued 641 work permits between April and July this year to skilled foreigners seeking employment in South Africa. Last year 1 133 permits were issued.

Alan Hirsch, the deputy director-general in the presidency, said that though there was no question that the country had a shortage of skills, significant progress had been made through the government's Joint Initiative for Priority Skills Acquisition.

"[The initiative] was designed to address a small number of urgent issues and the message from stakeholders is that it has made an important contribution. We have managed to crack some hard nuts and encouraged people to make changes in terms of skills shortages," he said.

Presenting the 2007 report of the initiative in April, Mlambo-Ngcuka said that the service levels agreements signed between the sector education and training authorities (Setas) and the labour department reflected a total of 18 879 registered artisans. An additional 20 000 artisans were expected to be registered in the 2008-2009 period. Plans to train 2 000 engineers a year by 2010, a 33 percent increase on the output of 2006, were on track.

Gary Watkins

Gary Watkins

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