South African organisations are still battling to attract and retain critical skills locally, with many turning to overseas markets to fill positions.

This is among the findings from Xpatweb’s Critical Skills Survey 2020/21, which highlights the most in demand scarce skills the country is facing and which leads to businesses seeking to recruit talent from across the globe.

Input from Xpatweb’s 2019 research findings was submitted for consideration when the drafting the latest OIHD critical skills shortage list. The survey was conducted across a wide range of multi-national and corporate firms to assess the level of difficulty organisations face when sourcing scarce skilled individuals and the role of foreign nationals in addressing these shortages. The number of respondents has grown exponentially in recent years, with a 30% increase in responses from 178 in 2019, to 220 in 2020/21.

Marisa Jacobs, CEO of Xpatweb, comments: “The survey has revealed that 77% of organisations have stated that they are still struggling to recruit and obtain critical skills in South Africa for their local and cross-border operations. 76% of participants further confirmed that an international search will assist the organisation in meeting its business objectives”

According to the latest survey, the top ten skills businesses are struggling to recruit include Engineers (18%), ICT (13%); Foreign language speakers (10%); Media and Marketing Specialists (9%); Artisans (8%); C-Suite Executives (7%); Senior Financial Executives (6%); Health Professions and Related Clinical Sciences (5%); Science Professionals (4%) and Accounting (1%).

Over the past five years, the skills shortage has persisted with eight categories of skills dominating the top of the list of professionals that businesses find difficult to recruit.

“This has led to many organisations seeking suitably qualified and experienced candidates beyond South Africa’s borders to fill these posts” Jacobs says.

The number of businesses indicating that engineers are difficult to recruit rose from 16% to 18%. This could indicate skills are being lost to the brain drain as countries like Australia and the UK compete directly with South Africa for qualified and experienced professionals. Business expansions into Africa for special projects locally in the oil and gas sectors also tend to attract these in demand skills.

Mechanical engineers (26%) were most in demand, followed by maintenance engineers (18%), chemical engineers (13%) and industrial engineers (14%).

The demand for ICT skills remains unprecedented and on the rise, as 14% of businesses, compared to 15% of respondents in the 2019 survey, indicate that they struggle to source skilled professionals in this field to drive their operational demand to transition into the digital economy.

Professionals most sought after include IT application developers (11%), data analysts (10%), data scientists (9%), software developers (9%) and software engineers (8%).

“As big data, robotics, artificial intelligence, machine learning and the internet of things rapidly shape the way of doing business, which often marks the difference between firms that survive and thrive in the transition from the third industrial revolution into the 4IR and those that don’t compete effectively, sourcing these skills is a priority that cuts across all sectors,” Jacobs notes.

Senior Financial and C-Suite Executives remain in demand with the number organisations reporting that it is a struggle to find suitable candidates to fill these key business leadership positions.

Most in demand professions were Chief Operating Officer (24%), Chief Financial Officer (24%), Chief Executive Officer (19%) and Chief Technology Officer (19%).

These skills are most sought after in sectors including business and finance; production and manufacturing; management; information communication; IT and technical services, mining and administrative services.

“Factors influencing the challenges that businesses face in recruiting the right person for these roles include the fact that in a global village, organisations are increasingly seeking professionals with international experience. Businesses are not only seeking essential tick box qualifications and experience required for a traditional executive position, but they want professionals who are equipped with niche business experience to lead their expansion and growth across international markets,” Jacobs explains

“Businesses are aware of market dynamics in their various global markets and need to be certain that candidates understand the nuances of their specific focus areas.”

This global expansion of businesses and especially growth in cross-border trade on the African continent has also led to rising demand for foreign language skilled professionals, including the hiring of interpreters.

About 10% of organisations indicated that they struggle to find people with adequate foreign language skills, a marked increase from just 4% in the 2019 survey.

Foreign language speakers most in demand included, French (29%), German (18%), Mandarin (14%); Italian (10%), Spanish (10%) and Dutch (4%). Sectors that are finding a demand for these skills are largely information technology and communication; business and finance; hospitality and tourism and education and libraries.

The survey findings reveal that South Africa continues to compete on a global stage for critical skills.

The US, Australia, and the UK’s critical skills shortage lists virtually mirror the skills that South Africa is desperate to attracted as highlighted in the 2020/21 Critical Skills survey – from ICT and C-Suite Executives to Engineers, the country’s need to fill posts in these fields to grow their economies.

“South Africa has to compete more than ever with the likes of the US, Australia and the UK when considering its strategy to recruit skilled professionals. Policy makers therefore need to consider how to make it as easy as possible for skilled professionals to gain access to work and business opportunities locally,” Jacobs advises.

“Fortunately, the South African government is serious about this and has updated the critical skills list to stay in touch with the needs of the local economy. The critical skills list makes it possible for businesses to embark on recruitment drives to source these skilled professionals abroad which makes it important for organisations to take advantage of the opportunity to comment on the new list before the deadline.”