Skills migration and the brain drain in South Africa

The loss of our highly skilled citizens to other countries through emigration has been a cause for concern in South Africa for many years. Contrary to popular perception, the brain drain in South Africa started long before the inception of the new government in 1994, and the figures suggest that the flow of professionals from this country continues to increase rapidly. At the same time, the number of highly skilled immigrants into South Africa ? a critical source for the replacement of skills lost through the brain drain ? is on the decrease.

Intuitively, a brain drain has a range of deleterious effects on a country’s economy. Amongst these are an adverse effect on economic growth and a reduction in a nation?s capacity to develop as a ‘knowledge society’ and therefore compete effectively in the global economy. A brain drain also constitutes a major loss of investment in terms of the education and training of its highly skilled professionals.

The fact of the matter, however, is that we do not have reliable data on the actual extent of emigration from South Africa. The figures reported in the annual migration reports produced by Statistics South Africa have been shown to represent a significant undercount of skilled emigration. Notwithstanding the current problems with the data, which are estimated to represent about only one third of real emigration, the official statistics do indicate some worrying trends.

For instance, over the past thirty years, the vast majority of skilled emigrants have been in the most productive age groups ? 25 to 45 years ? which means that the brain drain largely comprises South Africans who are already trained and established professionals. There has also been a steady increase in the number of professional women leaving South Africa, from about a quarter of all skilled emigrants in the 1970s, to just less than half in the 1990s. No doubt, this trend reflects the changing gender profile in the domestic labour market. The official statistics on emigration from South Africa do not provide a breakdown for the different ethnic groups in South Africa, but a recent survey indicates that white professionals are only slightly more likely to consider emigrating than are black professionals.

Of course, one of the critical questions in terms of the human resource base in South Africa is exactly which skills are we losing? The official statistics indicate that the greatest mobility of highly skilled people, both into and out of South Africa over the past decade or so, was amongst those in education and humanities occupations, followed by engineers and architects, and our top executive and managerial personnel. Emigration amongst those within the natural sciences and medical professions is also on the increase, while there has been a dramatic decline in the number of skilled immigrants in these occupational fields.

Perhaps not surprisingly, skilled South Africans who choose to emigrate head for some of the most advanced industrialised countries in the world ? the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada, and more recently, to Australia and New Zealand.

What makes skilled South Africans emigrate? During the apartheid era, political upheavals ? the Soweto uprising in 1976 and the States of Emergency in the late 1980s ? were a major driving force behind the exodus of professionals. More recently, however, research shows that the highly skilled are leaving because of crime, perceptions of a high cost of living and levels of taxation, and the perceived decline in the standard of public services, notably health and education delivery. At the same time, professionals in South Africa are eager to take advantage of the attractive salary packages and career opportunities in the advanced industrialised countries of the world.

In a way, these motivating factors are common sense. What they do not take into account, however, is the increasingly pervasive influence of globalisation on skills migration around the world. In essence, the global village offers an open market for employment and career opportunities to the highly skilled and, in recent times, the term ?brain circulation? has been used to capture the increasing flow of professionals around the world. In fact, the ability of countries like the United States to attract and retain large numbers of highly skilled migrants in the globalised labour market has contributed significantly to these countries? advancement.

The biggest challenges to the South African government are to find ways of keeping skilled South Africans at home ? although this requires a long-term approach to the improvement of safety and security and improved delivery of services ? and to develop policy which attracts the highly skilled from other parts of the world to our shores.

Source: hsrc.ac.za, mediaclubsouthafrica.com

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