By Kathy Gibson – A vast majority of South African business leaders (80%) regard emigration of top talent as a critical risk factor for their businesses.

And there’s reason for their concern: 55% of qualified young professionals are considering going abroad, according to a survey of HR professionals by Playroll. By 2020, a massive 914 901 South Africans had already emigrated.

Simonetta Guiricich, chief operating officer of Playroll, says the survey found that the top destination for talent flight is the UK, with the majority going on skilled visas. “So that suggests it is our most skilled labour leaving,” she says.

Australia is the second-most sought after destination, which Guiricich deduces means these are the youngest and most skilled people.

Portugal, in third position, is most likely attracting C-suite emigrants through its Golden Visa programme that lets people acquire citizenship if they make a substantial investment in the country.

“This means a lot of people, either highly skilled or up-and-coming, are choosing to make their homes elsewhere,” Guiricich says.

Another issue that companies are facing is the trend towards virtual emigration, where South Africans still live here but work for international companies.

Indeed, 40% of software developers residing in South Africa are employed by international companies, further reducing the already-shrinking talent pool.

Elsa Tshatedi, executive head: HR at Nedbank, says the bank has seen an increase in people emigrating and the numbers are increasing all the time.

“The people emigrating are those we have identified as those with scarce skills in the banking industry,” she says. “They are highly employable in South Africa and elsewhere.”

Business leaders need to do more to support talent in order to retain skilled people, says Guiricich.

Remote working is a case in point, where employees are now calling the shots, she points out.

“There are solutions out there that enable remote working, and sometimes businesses don’t have a choice.”

Tshatedi explains that Nedbank had already taken the first steps towards hybrid work before Covid, but the pandemic accelerated the process and the company quickly rolled out tools that let leaders with the staff, focussing on productivity and output.

“Specific programmes for line managers were compulsory, enabling them to engage with staff and use all the relevant tools. So hybrid working was already enabled through these processes.”

For employees not really able to work remotely, flexible hours have been introduced, so all workers are included in the changed model.

When employees are set on emigrating, Guiricich says an employer of record could be a practical solution. “This is where a company like Playroll would employ the emigrating worker on your behalf. This is a really practical solution that lets companies retain critical talent even if they emigrate, or at least gives them a chance to do a proper handover.

“For employees, it means they can go away but still be employed – and have the opportunity to come back if they want to.”