by David Gleason

Importing skills

Where is our home-grown talent?

South Africa lacks sufficiently skilled workers
Scarce skills will have to be imported

Reliable estimates of the number of skilled people we require are in scant supply, but, according to the Centre for Development and Enterprise, a non-governmental organisation, the figure is likely to be well north of the 502,000 released by the Department of Labour in 2008. 

Very roughly, it takes a generation to build up skills sets. If they aren’t home-grown the only alternative is to import them. More than a third of the engineers and IT professionals working in the US in 1990 were immigrants. Foreigners produced more than a third of that country’s biotechnology inventions and, in 2006, generated more than 25% of all global patent applications originating in the US.

Speeches keep being made here about how economic growth must be driven to 6% a year and more. But over the past decade all the government has done has been to promise to improve the systems enabling skilled immigrants to enter South Africa. 

Meanwhile, the reverse is taking place. The global skills market is luring South Africans to other countries. This is going to be a persistent, perhaps growing, trend for as long as that huge R880 billion infrastructure programme remains pie in the sky.

In 2011, the top eight countries receiving work permits received 15,008, or 72.6% of the total issued. What’s more, Zimbabwean and Chinese nationals alone received about half the permits. We are issuing far too few permits to make significant inroads into the skills backlog.

And we certainly don’t encourage entrepreneurs who may want to establish a business in this country. The permit system recognises this as a form of business permit — and then demands that considerable sums of money be produced. At least R2.5 million is needed, and you may not conduct any business other than that for which the permit was issued.

If that capital infrastructure programme is ever to get off the ground — presuming the vast sums it will consume can be found — the next essential element is the people to put it to work.

We will require large numbers of engineers of all kinds, architects, surveyors, planners — the list is endless. Without skilled electricians and plumbers, projects will stand uncompleted until the manpower can be obtained.

It is all very well to argue these people can be found elsewhere, but that presumes demand in other countries isn’t as great or immediate. Besides which, we shouldn’t want people with these skills to come here for short periods. They should be encouraged to stay to help build the country. That’s exactly how the US managed its 300-year miracle; the American dream was built on the back of millions of immigrants.

The future of the Development Bank of South Africa (DBSA) has been up in the air for some weeks now. I understand the issue has been kept especially quiet, but a reliable source advises me the intention is to halve the current staff complement. That means getting rid of about 300 people.

I understand section 189 notices in terms of the Labour Relations Act (setting out how retrenchment is approached) have been issued and some managers have been told to reapply for their positions.

Apparently, professional staff are the next on the DBSA’s retrenchment list. 

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Issue 58