South Africa’s got no talent – why critical skills aren’t sticking around

 ·7 Nov 2023

South Africa is rapidly becoming a less attractive destination for skills and talent, as high levels of unemployment, concerns over safety, and a mismatched education and training system pull the country down the global rankings.

This is according to the 2023 Global Talent Competitiveness Index from INSEAD Business School, which evaluates the talent performance of countries based on their ability to attract, develop and retain skilled individuals.

South Africa’s track record in this area has been deteriorating in recent years, with many industries reporting a severe lack of skilled individuals – often due to emigration or new ways of working (remote) work.

Anecdotal evidence points to many South African skills leaving to greener pastures overseas, leading to an often brutal fight for skills in the limited pool that remains.

The country’s skills crisis is further exacerbated by difficulties in importing needed skills. While the Department of Home Affairs has attempted to address this by more regularly updating South Africa’s critical skills list, visa issues abound.

While these local issues are not specifically highlighted by the GTCI, the index does reflect South Africa’s deterioration in attractiveness to global talent.

Out of the 134 countries ranked in the index, South Africa has fallen to 68th position, down from 60th in 2022. The country ranked 55th when the GTCI was launched in 2013.

Switzerland emerged as the leading nation in cultivating talent, closely followed by Singapore and the United States. Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland, Norway, Australia, Sweden and the United Kingdom complete the rest of the top ten.

South Africa

According to INSEAD, South Africa’s rank of 68th is just outside the upper half of the 2023 rankings, which has frequently been the case in the past decade.

“The country makes it into the top quartile (29th) in the Business and Labour Landscape sub-pillar, which
is due, in no small part, to the comparatively high level of technology adoption among its business sector.

“This boosts South Africa’s ability to Enable talent, for which it is ranked 57th. Its highest-position (53rd), however, is in the Attract pillar, where a fairly liberal foreign direct investment (FDI) regime and progress
in gender equality contribute to a robust performances in both External and Internal Openness (60th and 55th, respectively).”

The one area that drags down South Africa’s overall ranking, however, is its weak pool of Vocational and Technical Skills (ranked 93rd). The country also tanks in the employability index, where it ranks 131st of 134.

To improve these factors, the country would need to ensure that the education system better matches the needs of the economy, INSEAD said.

According to the group, South Africa’s index score of 43.01 is only slightly lower than the 43.53 average for the similar income group countries.

The tables below outline the top 10 and bottom 10 indicators for South Africa.

Best indicators

New business densityGlobal Knowledge Skills9
Cloud ComputingEnable10
Population with secondary educationVocational and Technical Skills14
Firms with websiteEnable20
Senior Officials and ManagementGlobal Knowledge Skills21
Enterprise SoftwareEnable29
Business and Labour LandscapeEnable29
Business Masters DevelopmentGrow30
Domestic credit to the private sectorEnable31
Employee DevelopmentGrow32

Broadly, South Africa has the necessary access to technology and expertise to make the country an attractive destination for talent and skills.

The country also offers great opportunities for new businesses and an enabling business landscape. Financing is easily accessible and the population is fairly well educated relative to other countries.

However, the positive indicators are drawn back severely by poor relations between employees – largely union-based – and employers, and the high levels of unemployment, particularly for highly educated individuals.

Add to the mix political instability, poor sanitation, high levels of crime, and onerous labour laws, and South Africa’s shine dulls substantially.

Worst indicators

EmployabilityVocational and Technical Skills131
Labour-Employer cooperationEnable124
Highly skilled unemploymentVocational and Technical Skills121
Personal SafetyRetain115
Ease of finding skilled employeesVocational and Technical Skills115
Youth InclusionGrow113
Political StabilityEnable105
Social MobilityAttract100
Education relevance to the economyVocational and Technical Skills100

Read: Skilled South Africans are leaving – but this is why many come back

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