It`s no longer a crime to stay in SA

Employers are throwing money at those with high-end skills, experience and business savvy, despite the IT downturn. With an abundance of entry-level candidates, there is a shortage of experienced specialised skills, and a wide gap between top and bottom earners.
Read time 5min 10sec

One of the more heartening results emerging from the 2002 survey is that fewer IT workers are considering leaving SA. Results for this year show that 16% of respondents are "very likely" to leave, while an alarming 26% of last year`s respondents indicated they were heading for foreign shores.

[CHART]The majority of those indicating they are considering or definitely leaving the country are chasing higher salaries. Almost one-quarter (23%) of respondents cited money as their main reason for emigration, while 12% are concerned about SA`s economy, the rand`s depreciation or the country`s tax policy.

[CHART]A further 15% said they are looking to foreign countries to further their experience and grow their career.

A desire to escape crime was cited by 12% of respondents as their main reason for leaving SA. Last year, 20% said concerns for their and their families` safety was the main motivation for leaving the country. Next on the list (10%) is dissatisfaction with the country`s political climate.

Comments from insiders

Some industry specialists believe the brain drain tide has been stemmed. "Many of the people who thought they could emigrate have made the move and have left the country. I really think the brain drain has stabilised," says Jill Hamlyn, MD of The People Business.

"The demand [for IT staff] has decreased worldwide. We`ve all been in a recession and reality is hitting home about international economies. Overseas is not necessarily where it`s going to happen; by comparison we still have a buoyant economy."

The percentage of survey respondents indicating they are "somewhat likely" to leave (24%) was also lower than that of last year (28%). Those "unlikely" or "very unlikely" to leave increased to 39% from 29%.

David Lowry, managing partner at Boyden Global Executive Search, says government statistics on the number of people exiting the country are unreliable, but he still sees the brain drain as a significant problem facing SA.

"We have a feel for it, certainly. If we pull out a list of young bright graduates - whether they are chemical engineers, computer science graduates, or CAs, and search our database later on, we know that a good 50% of them are not going to be available because they`ve left the country.

"We are talking about younger people now. The older people are economic prisoners as a lot of them can`t move, but the amount of younger people emigrating is actually quite frightening," says Lowry.

"The emigration figures are much, much higher than the government would admit to. A lot of them don`t say they are emigrating, they just go, get a job and they stay."

In Lowry`s experience, the reasons for leaving are most often crime, concerns about their children`s future and education opportunities, and in the case of white males, the affirmative action drive.

Specific skills land the job 

Org Geldenhuys, MD of Abacus Recruitment, says while it has become harder for local workers to find jobs overseas, those in the IT industry with specific skills can still land a job anywhere in the world.

"If you have very specific technical skills, you have a very good chance of finding a job. If you are a generalist - a manager or a sales person - it doesn`t work. Technical skills are transferable. You can take [people with technical skills] from here, put them on a plane to London and they can start working the same afternoon.

"If you take a sales person or a manager and transfer them, they`ve got to learn the culture, the market, and that takes a long time," explains Geldenhuys.

Colin Smith, director of Brenton Blue Consulting and strategic advisor to Meta Group, says that since the IT skills shortage remains a worldwide issue despite the economic slow-down, IT specialists are still in demand overseas.

"Meta Group believes that critical skills such as Java, Oracle, C++, Internet and Web development languages, and the forecast demand for Siebel, Lotus Notes and network specialists will continue to outstrip the current supply of trained and experienced resources through 2003.

"Given the depreciation of the rand, crime, a health and education system that seems confused, the Zimbabwean fiasco, and 'affirmative action`, there is not much that employers can do to prevent IT specialists from emigrating. What we have to do, however, is realise that the pool is getting smaller and that we need to be more innovative in the way we retain the people that have no desire to emigrate," says Smith.

"Younger employees often leave to experience life overseas but return after a few years. Organisations need to ensure that when people do return - and indications are that people are returning for a number of reasons - they are seen as employers of choice," he adds.

So, while those IT workers with specific skills can still find work internationally, it seems it is within local employers` power to create an enticing environment and sufficient challenges to keep skills within SA`s borders.

Findings from the survey show that it takes the right salary, scope for growth and a challenging work environment to ensure SA can hold onto its most valuable commodity - its skilled workers.

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