Historical Background to Africa’s Current Skills Shortage

It is no secret that the African continent has been experiencing a shortage of skills in the most important sectors related to development and growth, such as science and technology, engineering, mathematics, advanced technologies, automation, artificial Intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, 3D printing, and autonomous vehicles.

This reality has been delaying the continent’s progress towards sustainable, inclusive growth and development.

Even though it has been years since countries on the continent gained independence, there is still a general approach to ‘corrective measures’ aimed at trying to correct the imbalance in the availability of local skills and talent. Most countries have some form of localization initiatives, trying to enforce plans that could promote the retention of required skills and develop local skills by making it compulsory for companies that sponsor work permits to provide a detailed skills transfer plan to the local citizens that is to be followed and implemented during the course of the expatriate’s assignment period.

It’s also noteworthy that with the wave of countries’ patriotic spirit that arose in the 60s, skilled expatriates were forced to leave the continent and employment was automatically localised in most instances to unskilled natives.

Having in place a comprehensive skill retention and skill development plan that could benefit the indigenous workforce prior to the expulsion of colonialists was never part of Africa’s agenda during that period. As a result, skilled expatriates were left with no option other than to reduce their activities and presence in the continent. This impacted negatively on the continent’s work force skills growth.

Such a system essentially deprived African workers of the opportunity of being exposed to a complete range of industrial activities that could have empowered them.

In addition, Africa’s business partners took advantage of the situation that stemmed from the lack of skilled labour and a pattern was put in place whereby experts and highly skilled individuals were imported when needs arose, which is an expensive practice. Employers had no choice but to employ ‘outsiders’ to specific assignments where the skill could not be sourced locally.

Whilst it was definitely important to acknowledge and celebrate the need for and the continent’s accession to independence, it should have been an important priority for Africans to ensure that a legal framework was put in place to keep and retain skills that were required to the benefit of the local workforce development.

For some time, the post-colonial international labour practices system in place worked to the disadvantage of the continent’s skill development growth. The local workforce was not exposed to specific required industrialization expertise. In fact, they were limited only to extractive or primary activities.

Africa regulation trends to improve skills retention, transfer and development

Recently, we have noticed positive moves and labour regulatory initiatives toward the implementation of skills retention, skills transfer and skills development across the continent.

South Africa: White paper on international migration

On the 9th July 2017 a white paper on international migration was published by the Department of Home Affairs. The document provides a policy framework for a comprehensive review and overhaul of the existing immigration system. The publicised document is ambitiously trying to achieve the objective of the South African National Development Plan.

The paper aims to attract, retain and develop highly scarce talents by reviewing the current scarce skills list for areas which may be over capacitated.

The points based system approach embodied in the paper intends to ensure that only required skills are retained and developed in South Africa.

Rwanda: H1 Skilled worker on an occupation on demand

The Rwandan immigration regulations provide for a skilled work permit type known as H1. This permit is issued to an expatriate who possesses skills needed in the country. Expatriates whose skills are listed on the updated occupation demand list are exempted from the labour market test.

Nigeria: Combined Expatriate Residence Permit and Aliens Card (CERPAC)

In addition to the quota requirement in terms of the maximum limited number of expatriates in a company the regulations require that for each allocated expatriate position within a company two local understudies must be identified in terms of the skills transfer plan.

As part of the strategy to enforce and materialise the skills transfer and skills development plans, most African labour regulatory system trends require that a local understudy be identified within the company which is sponsoring the expatriate’s work permit application to ensure that at the termination of the expatriate assignment the local employee must be fully skilled.

In addition, certain countries such as South Africa have put in place a tax collection mechanism where a levy has been imposed to encourage employee’s learning and skills development.

Furthermore, in most of African countries we do find public institutions such as national employment agencies charged with the responsibility to manage issues related to unemployment as well as skills development. In most instances these agencies are part of the labour departments with a mission to identify scarce skills, provide professional training where need be and assist companies in the identification of skills that are required.

It is hoped that some of the strategies mentioned above will enable countries in Africa to achieve sustainable development goals as set out by UNESCO for 2030 targets.

What does this mean for investors?

Based on the localisation trends that are currently happening in the continent, investors intending to bring expatriates to Africa on a long term work permit assignment should factor in their long term plans that immigration and labour laws may change between the time that expatriates are work authorised in a country and the time that expatriates’ work permits are due for renewals.