Talent grab: How top companies are managing Africa’s skills shortage

Africa has a significant shortage of management and specialised skills. It is estimated there will be a 75% increase in the use of expatriate staff over the next three years, and the strategic use of these resources will be a critical success factor to help establish and grow business across Africa.

“Foreign direct investment (FDI), and the projected increase in FDI into Africa, will mop up talent … The demand for talent in Africa is going to outstrip supply … As a result of the higher demand for talent, the price of talent is going to go up, and it is going to continue to go up … for as long as there is a skills shortage,” said Ray Harraway, Tax Human Capital Director at Ernst & Young Africa, at the recent E&Y Strategic Growth Forum in Cape Town.

During a session called ‘Addressing the human capital challenge: talent management & mobility’, human resources (HR) professionals from IBM, E&Y and Standard Bank shared some insights into how they manage their workforce across the continent.

A mixture of expatriate and local staff

All three companies use a combination of local and expatriate workers in Africa. All the participants also acknowledged the importance of tapping into the African diaspora for specialised skills.

IT giant IBM has expanded significantly across Africa over the past two years. In December 2010, the company had direct operations in six African countries; a year later it had grown its footprint to 24 countries. Guillermo Miranda, HR Director – Talent for IBM in Africa and the Middle East explained that in Africa, IBM sources its employees from three pools: local talent; African nationals working for IBM abroad; and Africans in the diaspora. He said that when a new position opens up, IBM would first determine the likelihood of finding a local person with the required skills and background. If there is no local talent available, it would go with one of the other two options.

Standard Bank also uses a combination of local talent and expatriate staff in the 17 African countries where it operates. “When people join organisations like ours, they understand … the possibility of a global role. Many of them join specifically for that reason. So we have lots of intra-Africa moves as well. Part of the value proposition for people is that they are able to work in an organisation where they are able to actually have the opportunity to grow and develop through these moves,” noted Shirley Zinn, Deputy Global Head of HR for Standard Bank Group.

Seshni Samuel, People Leader at E&Y, said that when the firm decided to open an office in Cameroon, it couldn’t find any suitable local candidates. E&Y therefore brought in a Cameroonian working in its London office to head-up the business. It also hired a global headhunting firm to find a second person. “Both of those people … had the on-the-ground understanding to operate in Cameroon. They also knew exactly what they were expecting from an emerging market point-of-view. This is where people from the diaspora become very attractive … you bridge the gap, quite nicely and easily. They were able to very quickly find an acquisition, get us offices in a prime location, build up a business, and we predict within a year we should be number one in that market. You couldn’t have put a South African in, and expected the same outcome,” she explained.

Skills transfer

Miranda said that even when IBM brings in foreign staff for a specific project in Africa, it will make sure that there is a skills transfer to local workers. “We have this heavy project in Angola to install software for an oil refinery. So for six months I need to have 25 software architects that know the most sophisticated control systems for refineries. We need to bring that [talent] from the outside … It is important to have a transfer of knowledge so when you finish the installation of this sophisticated software, the time that there is a glitch in the system, you don’t have to go to the UK, and fly somebody to Luanda to fix it … Consciously, when we do projects, we put together local resources with foreign resources.”

While IBM imports skills for projects on the continent, it also exports African skills to international projects. “We have a wonderful example with an African telecommunications company and mobile banking. Another company overseas is trying to do something similar. So we exported Kenyan IT specialists to help them have a mobile banking system. So it is both ways, we are not just bringing resources here, we are exporting resources.”

Samuel also emphasised the importance of growing local talent. “It is definitely two-fold. While you are bringing in talent, you have to grow talent in-house. You can’t be one-sided.”

Hardship destination?

Based on factors such as political stability and crime levels, as well as the quality of housing, health and education, some still view Africa as a “hardship destination”. But should expatriates working in Africa receive a hardship allowance?

E&Y’s Seshni Samuel said it is all relative to where “you are coming from, and where you are going to”. Samuel, a South African, noted that she personally lived as an expat in The Netherlands, a country not usually associated with hardship, and found life there very tough.

Miranda called for a rethink of the concept of hardship. “It is important to understand that the concept we have in mind of hardship is driven by the US mentality of security … You can have a different set of hardship understandings … The concept of hardship is something we need to re-evaluate.”