Why Europe and the US are snapping up SA talent

SA professionals thrive in a virtual emigration trend as Europe and the US seek their skills. Can local companies adapt to retain this valuable talent?

An interesting development is presenting vibrant new work opportunities to South African professionals. Here’s a look at the hiring storm that is allowing individuals with the right skills to take up well-paid international job opportunities – without the hassle of an actual relocation.

We’re all aware of South Africa’s alarming unemployment rate, which the World Economic Forum estimates could hit the 35.6 percent mark during the course of this year. But those South African companies with positions that need filling are also struggling to hire the skilled talent that they need, in what credit ratings company Moody’s has described in a BusinessTech piece as “a massive skills mismatch”.

While government has introduced various initiatives (ranging from a new Mining Charter, the Black Business Supplier Development Programme, and the Youth Employment Service, among others) to remedy the situation – especially among our 59.6 percent unemployed youth aged 15 to 24, according to Stats SA –  the IMF has warned that these initiatives are not likely to generate the “material, longer-term gains” needed within the country.

In the meantime, a group of senior and highly skilled professionals are finding themselves in high demand among European and North American companies, to the extent where they can call the shots –  including being able to work for firms based in appropriate time zones, without having to go to the trouble of moving lock, stock and barrel overseas.

What is virtual emigration?

According to the experts at Virtual Emigration, a company supplying talent offshore, the concept on which their name is based refers to a “cross-border relationship where an employee performs employment services while not in the [same] jurisdiction”; as opposed to simply working from home for a company based in the self same country. In effect, the laws and regulations of more than one country then apply to such a person’s employment contract.

A positive of the pandemic

It is clear, then, that the best outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic was that it showed employers – ranging from those at big corporates and international companies, to those heading up start-ups and entrepreneurial endeavours – that it is completely viable for qualified and motivated individuals and their teams to deliver on their job descriptions; and even to complete high-level and complex projects from wherever each person with an online device happens to be located. 

Why the demand for South Africans?

Just a few of the reasons why our senior executives are so sought after in the international arena, particularly in industries such as engineering, IT, accounting and auditing, medical specialities, management experience, and other forms of specialist  knowledge, is because:

  • We are known to be extremely hard workers;
  • We are more affordable to hire, due to the Rand-Dollar or Rand-Euro exchange rate, than anyone who is a European, British, American or Canadian national; 
  • Our spoken English is universally easy to understand, being our primary business language despite having 11 locally spoken official languages;
  • Our time zone is highly compatible with cities such as London, Paris or Amsterdam, while meetings can easily be accommodated with team members located on the East Coast of the States.

The local challenge

The question we need to ask, then, is where does this situation of virtual emigration (be it permanent, contract or freelance) – which is leaching local talent out of its own emptying skills pool – leave South African companies with high-calibre positions to fill?

My thinking is that employers, their HR teams and recruitment firms across the board must think outside the box to attract the talent that they seek. This could involve bringing individuals, who have previously left a company to study further or increase their skills base at another firm, back into the fold. Or it could mean offering fixed-term contracts, which provide highly skilled individuals with more flexbility and higher pay than a longer-term permanent position would involve.

It certainly does require collaborating across industries and networks to ensure that a pipeline of talent is continuously being recruited from tertiary institutions. Employing this method means that the best of the bunch are being hired each year to take up intern, junior, and later more advanced positions – as they gather the skills, knowledge, qualifications and experience necessary to lead these professions and industries, before they have a chance to consider seeking offshore perks.

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Jeremy Bossenger
Jeremy Bossenger

Jeremy Bossenger has been a director at BossJansen Executive Search for over 15 years. In this role, he and his team offer executive search services across most sectors and functions – encompassing interim management, C-Suite and Non-Executive Director level placements both nationally and internationally.

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