How to attract and retain SA’s finest talent in a “brain-drain” climate

How to attract and retain SA’s finest talent in a “brain-drain” climate


How’s the weather? Drain. South Africa has a long history of underutilising its talent. We now have a greater pool of talent and skills to draw from than ever before. The challenge is to hold on to those skills and talents. Brain-drain is when these highly trained or qualified people leave a particular country. Why should this happen in South Africa?

Economic down grades, political corruption and uncertainty. South Africa’s qualified and skilled work-force see the UK, Europe, North America and Australia as greener pastures. They offer more money, security and stability than sunny South Africa, is the perception. And in some cases this is true. According to COO at Jack Hammer, Advaita Naidoo, South African managers are viewed as “hard-workers” overseas. So there is a supply and a demand for skilled South Africans overseas, meaning the “brain-drain is most likely to persist”.


What can be done? How do companies attract and retain quality employees? This, according to Niteske Marsha, MD of Network Recruitment, is one of the greatest challenges for businesses in the present candidates market in South Africa. Employers compete not only against the attraction of overseas work, but also within a changing career culture. Loyalty used has lost the value it was once perceived to hold. Millenials are expected to have 4 or 5 careers in their adult life. These changes make it much harder to attract and retain staff. Staff that companies cannot retain, may become part of the brain-drain.


However, we are not helpless. Beyond competing against overseas salaries, which South Africa will struggle to do, here are some areas to focus that can help create a workforce that wants to stick around and reverse the brain-drain trend. But one that also wants to perform on the world stage:


Train managers to be open minded to new ideas, and take them seriously. Encourage employee contributions to your organization’s journey. Employees who feel they are agents in the change that a company is making are likely to stay, provided they believe in the cause.
Make sure the organisation’s mission is clear and sits within a firm framework – a plan. Encourage employees to be authentic about their alignment with the company’s mission. As a company, you want employees who align and have a genuine emotional connection to the mission. These employees are likely to stick around. How specific and particular the plan is might vary company to company. It can come from above, in a clearly articulated plan, or from below by encouraging employees to carve their own path within a company framework. In the end, to the first point, agency and purpose are natural companions.


Values and Authenticity
Authentic alignment between employee and company is key. So a part of the candidate experience needs to be an honest introduction to the values of the company. Not quite the good, bad and ugly all, but remembering, talent is only going to be as valuable as it aligns with the company. It is in this field that the best companies excel, because they are the best. Of course, values are unlikely to align 100%, so employers need to be accepting of the complexity of people.


As Naidoo suggested, South African managers are known for their hard work. This is because we have an employer friendly culture. Employees are expected to make sacrifices for the company that does them the favour of employing them. This is not so in a candidate’s market. Employers need to consider the whole human that is the candidate and make an active effort in allowing for a healthy work-life balance. A company that appears to care about my well-being (better yet, actually does care), is likely to hold onto its employees.
These are conceptual frames to be considered and put into practice. Here are two suggestions how.


How We Made It In Africa interviewed DHL employees in Africa on the subject of attracting and retaining staff. A pleasant, stimulating and challenging work environment was repeatedly high on the list. These challenges, however, need to be thoroughly supported materially, and, if need be, emotionally. Challenges need to be fair. And failure, in attempts of great things, encouraged.
Digital Footprint
Having a significant digital presence is key in being visible to prospective employees. Furthermore, when employee work can break into the digital realm, there is less temptation to physically move. The work does that for us. Being visible invites new employees in, and helps existing employees feel they are part of something that has a footprint, a mark in the world. This is about agency, purpose and making change. Companies need to harness technology in the service of their employees’ needs for growth.


Many South African companies do employ some of the leaders in their fields. This is certainly a step in the right direction. Locals may well be tempted to stay simply by following the example, or even as an opportunity to learn from industry leaders.


South Africa can take advantage of this situation by making the employment of high level foreigners easier. This may bring in new talent that gives the impression, and the reality, of a relevant company that is internationally attractive. This is by nature, a reversal of the brain-drain. There is no need to leave our shores if we are a country that attracts some of the best and brightest.


In aiming to attract and retain talent in South Africa, companies are forced to be better. They need to stay with or be ahead of the curve in terms of embracing technology, creating innovative and productive working environments, and treating their employees as whole human beings. Achieving this, companies will find that retaining staff becomes less of a challenge. More likely, companies by this description will have difficulty getting rid of staff and be spoilt for choice. The candidates market is good for business, because it forces businesses to be good, while also working against brain-drain.