Clem Sunter

Our biggest export is skills

2011-08-24 12:02

Clem Sunter

I recently spent a week in Perth, Western Australia seeing family and friends. Much of my time was spent at the restaurant with the best view of the ocean in Perth. It is called The Blue Duck and is located on Cottesloe Beach. Noticeable was the number of times I heard the South African accent at other tables and during walks along the path overlooking the beach. It is very different to the Aussie accent!

Likewise in London in January where I was doing a strategy session for a large American player in the IT business. Wimbledon has so many South Africans that there are shops there that specialise in selling Mrs Balls chutney and biltong. One head-hunter confided to me that his first stop overseas for senior posts in the field of engineering and finance is South Africa. He said the quality of talent on offer was excellent and the financial bait did not have to be too exorbitant. He Skypes the applicants first and then comes out to interview a short list. Easy with very little overheads involved.

When I heard those South African voices in Perth, I wondered how much of our taxpayers' money has been spent educating people to boost Australia's competitiveness. Primary school, secondary school, university - all the money down the drain. Moreover, it is a one way deal. How often have you heard an Australian accent in Sandton or Melrose Arch? Even the England cricket team, which is now the number one test team in the world, partially owes its success to guys with South African roots.

The list is endless. I often refer to our own Siyabulela Xuza from Umtata who is now at Harvard University, has a minor planet named after him for the advances he has made in rocketry science and was guest of honour at a recent launch of Endeavour. Nasa laid out the red carpet for him with a full-blown tour of their facilities. America has made it very clear it wants to keep him.

What do we do in return? We import specialist skills at supersonic salaries which invariably include an element of danger pay to compensate for living in a high crime zone. I would love to know what foreign engineers were paid on the Gautrain project. Even welders and other artisans who work with ultra-sophisticated techniques on heavy steel structures don't come cheap. We don't have any because they are all gone.

Occasionally, we strike it lucky with Somali fashion designers in Cape Town who have revived the entire industry with their world-beating original designs. But the examples are few and far between because of the difficulties of getting work permits and the lengthy delays in processing the documents. We don't exactly welcome talent from beyond our borders.

Thus, you can forget about the trade deficit, the balance on our current account, the arguments for beneficiating our minerals before we export them. These statistics and issues pale into insignificance compared to the talent flows in and out of South Africa, when it comes to influencing our long-term economic prospects. Talent retention should be as much a priority for government here as it is for companies. To this one must add talent attraction and talent development.

Where do you think Manchester United, Chelsea or Manchester City would be if they were consistently shedding their talent like us? They would not have a snowball's chance in hell of winning this year's Premier League trophy. In this context, a nation is just a much bigger version of a soccer team. This country is awash with talent scouts who cannot wait to take the star players in business, academia and technical disciplines offshore at a relatively moderate price.

Despite the hard times economic scenario around the world - or even because of it as it makes us the cheaper alternative - the headhunting business has never had it so good in South Africa. Just go to a few of the top websites for overseas recruitment to see how many CVs of our local talent are posted there. It makes you want to cry.

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