Implications Of South Africa’s Brain Drain

Written for and first published by PPS on 22 May 2019


The number of skilled professionals committed to a career in South Africa is diminishing, while the demand for their expertise is not.

Emigration is a complex and expensive process, which means that it’s generally top talent – skilled doctors, accountants, lawyers, engineers, corporate employees, and successful entrepreneurs – who both qualify and have the financial means to leave. Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the UAE, UK, and USA continue to be the destinations of choice.

So what are the implications of a professional migration trend on a developing nation?

Scatterlings of Africa bodes ill for healthy economy

Skilled professionals play a critical role in the working environment and shaping of SA’s future. They are usually the highest earners, and therefore the most significant contributors to the country’s tax revenue. As the pool of top talent contracts, so too does the revenue obtained by the South African Revenue Service (SARS). The long-term effects of this ongoing erosion of the country’s human resources and endowments should be of considerable concern to every citizen who wants to build a sustainable future.

Revealing insights from PPS Graduate Professional Index

The Professional Provident Society (PPS) is a local financial services provider focused exclusively on providing the right financial solutions to graduate professionals.

In January 2019, PPS conducted an independent survey of 5,837 members to gauge their perceptions of a number of issues affecting their professions, both now and in the near future.

Graduate professionals working across the Accounting, Dental, Engineering, Legal, Medical, Pharmaceutical, and other sectors were polled, and the findings of the survey shed light on many of the push and pull factors they take into consideration when thinking about emigrating.

Push and pull factors for professionals considering emigration

The majority of respondents (68%) felt confident in the future of their profession over the next five years. The most confident were accountants (86%), ‘other’ professionals (80%), and legal professionals (65%), followed by engineers (60%) and pharmacists (60%). The least confident were medical professionals (56%) and dentists (47%). Factors which positively influenced this confidence were financial viability (35%) and regulations (23%). Factors which negatively influenced this confidence were political issues (43%) and economic conditions (27%).

The majority of respondents (71%) would encourage matriculants to enter their respective professions. 89% of accountants would encourage matriculants, followed by 80% of engineers, 79% of ‘other’ professionals, 59% of pharmacists, and 56% of medical professionals. The main reasons for positively influencing this recommendation is that the skills are needed in SA (51%), and the profession is personally rewarding (35%). Only 9% stated financial rewards as a reason. The factors which negatively influenced recommendations were the belief that other professions may be more desirable (33%), there are no job opportunities in the profession (20%), and the profession is not financially rewarding (20%). In the case of dentists, the major negative was that it is not financially viable (38%). The major negative for engineers was the lack of job opportunities (36%).

When asked about the state of youth unemployment, 36% of respondents thought this was a problem which government must solve, and 30% believed that their professional associations were also looking for solutions. 42% suggested that skilled professionals cannot find appropriate jobs and are moving overseas. The largest percentage who felt this way were engineers (51%).

22% of respondents felt that professionals were overworked due to staff shortages. The largest percentage who felt this way were pharmacists (34%) and medical professionals (33%).

42% of respondents believed that millennials in the workplace needed a different leadership style, and companies should adopt new ways of working. 17% suggested that millennials are not as hard working as previous generations. Only 12% thought that maths and science standards had been improved to enable people to enter their professions.

Main findings for each of the professions

Lawyers

84% of respondents were concerned about how state governance could impact the future of the legal profession over the next 12 months.

Doctors

73% of respondents felt that a large number of medical professionals are depressed and suffering burnout, due to long hours (38%) and poor working conditions (23%).

72% did not think that the National Health Insurance (NHI) will improve the sustainability of the profession. When asked what can be done to improve the healthcare system in SA, 26% mentioned anti-corruption and better management of funds, and 12% suggested adequate staffing based on merit, not race.

When asked what can be done to encourage doctors to stay in SA rather than move abroad, 33% thought that the socio-economic situation needs to be improved, 30% suggested better working conditions, and 19% suggested better salaries and incentives.

47% were of the opinion that the deployment of newly qualified doctors to rural areas had improved access to healthcare in general. But 23% believed that this policy had discouraged individuals from entering the profession.

Engineers

78% of respondents thought there had been a decline in engineering project opportunities. And 76% were of the opinion that the government’s strategic integrated projects programme not being realised has affected them a great deal.

Dentists

54% of respondents were of the opinion that the NHI will increase access to dental services, and 58% thought they could be under threat from big corporates offering dentistry. 87% thought that technological advancements have positively influenced their ability to treat patients, but 66% thought it was difficult to get funding for specialised equipment. 55% thought there was a skills shortage facing the industry.

Pharmacists

66% of respondents thought that access to pharmaceutical services had improved over the past 20 years, but 62% thought there was a skills shortage facing the industry. 93% viewed their client interaction as an opportunity to educate the community about medicine, but 88% thought big chains were drowning the community pharmacist. 86% did not think the NHI adequately addresses pharmacists.

Accountants

35% of respondents were of the opinion that the current reputational issues are negatively impacting their profession. 59% did not believe that graduates are adequately equipped for the job and require further training, and 69% believed that there are adequate training opportunities for accountant graduates. The major issues to be addressed by the profession over the next 12 months include improved governance, integrity and transparency (55%), and innovation/technology (25%). 33% claimed to be assisting with improvements to the profession.

What government can do to stem the brain drain

The origins of the professional emigration phenomenon are many and varied, but most fall somewhere on the socio-economic-political spectrum. The majority seem to be directly tied to the political upheaval of the last decade, the effect it has had on the economy, and uncertainty around the future for SA. Those who decide to emigrate haven’t made a snap decision. Most have been toying with the idea for years, but current affairs often push them to make that final call.

The future of SA cannot be compromised by populist policies, which are not sustainable. The current NHI legislation, for example, which caps fees that doctors can charge for private healthcare, will almost certainly result in a mass exodus of medical professionals for greener pastures. This will have a knock-on effect for other skilled professions, because once the doctors leave, then other professionals who can afford to leave will follow suit, as they want quality healthcare for their children.

Government needs to get its house in order, and focus on bringing stability to the economy. With stability comes investor confidence, and with more foreign direct investments, SA can grow its economy.

What business can do to retain top talent

Because of the brain drain, there is less of a concentration of talent. And herein lies an incredible opportunity for skilled professionals to carve out a niche for themselves. But companies need to make their jobs, and in turn the country, worth staying for. When a company acknowledges its people with financial rewards and opportunities for growth, and genuinely understands the need for a healthy work/life balance, there is less of an inclination to look for work elsewhere.

“Right now there is a window of opportunity which SA needs to take advantage of if we want to turn things around before it’s too late,” says Motshabi Nomvete, Head of  Technical Marketing at PPS. “If government and business can work together to create a mutually beneficial and viable platform for opportunity and success, then we will increasingly see more skilled professionals wanting, and choosing to stay. And once we reach a tipping point, not only will we stop the brain drain, it could actually start reversing.”