When SA firms have to compete for skills

WITH many skills in high demand and short supply, more and more South Africa firms are looking abroad to bring in much-needed skills to continue and grow operations within the country. This they are doing with mixed success, due to various factors, among others the pressure of hiring South Africans and challenges with work visas.

The rarest skills with the highest demand are mentioned by a number of sources as those in the IT and engineering spheres. Developers (programmers) are no longer keen to give out their contact details due to an abundance of phone calls from what they call “desperate and unknowledgeable recruiters”.

Recruitment companies such as Offerzen have sprouted up, turning the recruitment model on its head, forcing companies to apply for candidates as opposed to job seekers applying for jobs.

Says Philip Joubert, co-founder of Offerzen: “Currently, South Africa is a very attractive place to find developers, where international companies open up offices in the country and pay higher salaries. We have world-class developers at bargain salaries, especially compared to Silicon Valley or London. As a South African company you're increasingly competing with international companies for talent.” This exacerbates the problem for local firms to find relevant technical and programming skills.

The Joburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE) publishes an annual report on the state of IT skills in South Africa, noting an increasing amount of firms looking abroad to hire staff that they cannot find in South Africa. The JSCE research of 2016 states that the skills gap has widened with “71% reporting at least a major effect (including a high 29% indicating a threat to their viability).”

The report further shows that the number of employers that now recruit overseas to supplement rare skills has increased to 26% from 12% in 2014. Companies tend to pick these skills mainly from Africa, India and Eastern Europe.

Paul Cartmel, who runs a top South African software design and development company, New Media Labs, says that although they have hired foreign employees, the numbers are minimal. “Interviewing is sometimes challenging due to language constraints, while visa concerns exist as well. In theory, it helps solve the skills shortage we face, but alas this is a global skills shortage,” says Cartmel.

His views are almost identical to that of Amit Ramdath, CEO of ByteOrbit, a custom software and mobile development firm in Cape Town. “Without the right qualifications it is difficult to obtain a work permit even if the person has the right skills,” says Ramdath.

“Usually foreign staff are more loyal and want to grow in the organisation. Often they are highly skilled and willing to skill-up further.”

It is a relief that due to the introduction of critical skills work visas by the Department of Home Affairs (DHA), South Africa has increased as a destination for IT industry workers. The JSCE suggests that this new visa type, together with the skills shortage, has led to the jump in expatriate staff moving to South Africa.

Obtaining a critical skills work visa means finding one’s skills clearly marked on the DHA’s critical skills list, published in 2014 and based on the same list produced by the Department of Labour (DoL) that year. The DoL, however, publishes a list yearly, while the DHA has yet to update its requirements to reflect the skills South Africa requires. For example, teachers do not appear on the list at all.

In addition to this challenge, various parts of the critical skills work visa application process are difficult to navigate. Nicola Lochner, Immigration Manager at Ashman Attorneys, mentions that some skills are not correctly adjudicated by the DHA, while applications for other skills, such as engineering, require lengthy registration processes at authoritative bodies like ECSA (Engineering Council of South Africa).

The South African Qualifications Authority (Saqa), is also reported to give applicants lengthy delays, especially when verifying qualifications from overseas educational institutions. By the time of publication, Home Affairs had not commented on either of these issues, however they did release data for 2015, stating that 4 424 critical skills visas issued were issued that year.

In terms of information and communications technology, the IITPSA is the representative body in South Africa to register with if a foreigner wishes to prove critical skills in that sector. According to the IITPSA, it has been inundated with new registrations for individuals wanting to qualify for critical skills visas, to the point that resources are placed under strain.

Research from Adzuna suggests rare skills in SA somewhat similar to those displayed on the DHA’s critical skills list. Many are mirrored in the visa-qualifying categories of other countries, especially technical skills like IT and engineering, with a growing base of financial job listings coming to the fore.

Yet every country in the world is facing some sort of skill shortage in certain areas and all of them are making efforts to persuade qualified workers to move their way. This indicates that while extending recruitment tentacles overseas, South African firms still have to place suitable bait on their hooks to gather interest from foreign job seekers.

South Africa is a fabulous destination and a very attractive destination for expats and foreign workers, even in terms of salary, where fair salaries for rare skills and lower tax rates make the country a great option. SA therefore has a number of factors that it can play to its advantage.

Time will tell whether the administrative, governmental and organisational attempts to attract the right people from abroad will work and add to our local economy.

* Jesse Green, Country Manager for Adzuna SA.

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