SOUTH Africa’s "brain drain" problems have been reversed over the past few years, thanks in part to weak economies elsewhere — a continuing trend that bodes well for local business, says Adcorp labour market economist Loane Sharp.
An Adcorp employment report released on Monday shows that since the global financial crisis began in 2008, a net 359,000 high-skilled South Africans have returned from foreign work assignments.
"South Africans who emigrated 10 years ago during the worldwide economic boom from 2004 to 2008 overestimated their job security in English-speaking countries — the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and so on," he said.
"When the global financial crisis hit, I think they discovered just how vulnerable their jobs were. That’s what we’re seeing through our recruitment databases — a significant uptick in the number of South Africans returning from abroad and looking for work here."
Mr Sharp said "almost all" who were returning had found work, and the jobless rate for high-skilled workers was as low as 0.4%.
About 52% of those returning had been hired in management positions. Management was "the most critical shortage of any skills in South Africa". Professionals, which includes lawyers, doctors, engineers and accountants, made up 37% of those returning. Mr Sharp said local purchasing power in South Africa was far higher than in other, more expensive countries, "so South Africa looks vastly more attractive than the countries to which South Africans have traditionally emigrated".
The positive trend was likely to continue until the global economy recovered, which was "not going to be any time soon".
Mr Sharp said that besides much-needed skills gains, local businesses would benefit from lower real wages for high-skilled staff.
"South Africa has a tremendous shortage of high-skilled workers and, as a result, South African companies struggle to find appropriately skilled people and they pay generally much higher than they would abroad."
He said South Africa’s "substantial" skills shortage was not being met by local supply, which meant restrictions on foreigners living and working in South Africa "should be relaxed". Amendments to immigration laws had made it "almost impossible for foreigners to find work in South Africa".
Boitumelo Sethlatswe, a researcher at the South African Institute of Race Relations, said while a figure of 359,000 returning high-skilled workers sounded high, it was not completely surprising given the effect of the global financial crisis, and that it was over a period of five years.
Ms Sethlatswe said as a result of the financial crisis — from which South Africa was somewhat sheltered — "it does make sense to come back home where perhaps the standard of living and prospects might seem better than where you currently are".
South Africa was "struggling to fill" skilled positions, which meant people with skills had better prospects in the country than elsewhere, and would have a good standard of living.