South Africans are significantly less willing to relocate to a new country physically than in 2018, according to a new study Decoding Global Talent, Onsite and Virtual by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and The Network.

The study included almost 209 000 participants in 190 countries and 1 421 in South Africa.

Decoding Global Talent, Onsite and Virtual is the third core publication based on BCG and The Network’s ongoing research into worker mobility and worker preferences.

The study shows that the pandemic has had a major impact on people’s attitudes toward work abroad, reducing their interest generally and inclining them towards countries that have done the best job of containing the coronavirus.

Only 59% of South Africans are willing to move to another country for work, which is down from a 72% willingness level in 2018. Young and highly educated South Africans aren’t willing to move abroad either: only 56% of young people and 61% of highly educated people in the country said they would be willing to relocate.

“This is in line with the global trend of decreasing mobility – which is likely due to the pandemic, but also because of tighter immigration and less welcoming policies by some of the big destination markets,” says Rudi van Blerk, principal and recruiting director at Boston Consulting Group, Johannesburg.

However, people in some of the most sought-after job roles are still extremely mobile and willing to move and work abroad; these include digitalisation and automation (85%), science & research (78%), law (76%) and IT (74%). “This could indicate a risk of brain drain in these fields, where employers typically struggle to fill roles,” says Van Blerk.

The US remains the number one destination where people from South Africa would move to, but the next most popular destinations have shifted slightly. The UK overtook Australia, and New Zealand and the United Arab Emirates are also more popular targets than 2018, moving up a spot to fifth and sixth respectively. “This is also in line with global trends, with Asian and Middle East destinations growing in popularity, likely due to their comparably better management of Covid,” Van Blerk says.

Overall attractiveness of South Africa to global workers dropped slightly, from ranking 40th in 2018 to 45th in 2020, but the country remains an attractive destination for other African countries such as Zambia, Angola and Gabon, as well as the Netherlands and UK internationally.

A New Kind of Mobility

While there is less willingness now to pull up stakes and move to a foreign country, the survey shows a high level of enthusiasm for virtual mobility – staying in one’s home country while working for a foreign employer.

“Workers in the whole of Africa have shown that they are very open to working remotely for a foreign employer,” says Wiebka Cooper, operations manager at CareerJunction, The Network partner organisation that assisted with the survey in South Africa. “Remote working has grown significantly as a trend because of the pandemic and offers opportunities for workers to advance their careers even with international companies without needing to relocate.”

South Africans have also shown their interest in virtual mobility, with 73% saying they are open to work for an international remote employer, compared to the global average of 57%. The US, UK and Australia are the top destinations where South Africans would look for remote employers – the same as the top target destinations for physical relocation.

“This may have interesting implications: Africa could emerge as a possible virtual talent pool for Western companies – especially for European employers, who don’t need to deal with much time difference when employing African talent remotely,” says Van Blerk. “This could be a good opportunity for South African workers to gain global work experience, build their career, and get better compensation – without having to worry about visas or relocation costs. However, this could present the risk of virtual brain drain for the South African economy.”