Opinionista Johann Redelinghuys 3 March 2013

Bridging the gap: Time to embrace immigrant skills

Our simultaneous dilemmas of unemployment and a chronic skill shortage can be reversed if we change our thinking. South Africa would be well advised to consider the German model that is leading the way with a new approach to immigration and the rules of employment regarding foreigners.

The cabinet of Chancellor Angela Merkel has just passed new immigration rules to make it easier for foreigners to work in German industries and businesses where there are skill shortages. Germany’s employment rate is at its highest level since the 1990 reunification. The country is outperforming its partners in the European Union, and it now has a shortfall, says Reuters, of 5.4 million workers with vocational or tertiary qualifications.

The labour minister, Ursula von der Leyen, says, “With this new decree we are jettisoning 40%of the old rules and leaving the door wide open for skilled labour.” Good thinking!

In South Africa, on the other hand, we put obstacles into reversing the skills-gap process at every turn. We sit with thousands of vacancies, especially in government and local government. The South African Municipal Workers Union (Samwu) estimated last year that there were 30,000 vacancies. No wonder service delivery is at disastrous levels. It is because we refuse to employ people who don’t meet a range of sometimes wholly unrealistic criteria. If we continue to insist on employing only South Africans, in the misguided hope of alleviating the unemployment crisis, but cannot find qualified South African people to fill the jobs, then we are defeating ourselves.

Professor Adam Habib, the new vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, in an inflammatory speech to the Institute of Race Relations in 2010, said it is the capacity crisis that is preventing the state from providing effective service delivery and it can be blamed on affirmative action. “The problem is that black people are placed in key positions because they are cadres and not because they are qualified for the positions,” Habib went on to say.

We certainly do need qualified people here, not only to do a job of work for which no local person can be found, but also to pass on their skills and to coach young South Africans who should be serving internships or starting their working careers.

Concern remains, however, for the millions of unemployed South Africans, especially the young ones, who don’t know how to get going in their first jobs, who have no skills and who are not in training or education. It seems like a hopeless and totally intractable situation and our dysfunctional educational system only compounds the increasingly sad matter. At least the minister of finance in his budget speech on Wednesday, encouraged employers with tax breaks for offering employment to those starting first-time jobs.

We are not going to change the outcome if we don’t change our thinking. A completely outdated mindset is illustrated by the South African Government website. It shows the various departments, which list their many vacant positions, but at the same time fails to give detailed instructions of how the recruitment process will be conducted and how prospective candidates will be excluded for not meeting their hostile sounding requirements. There is not much encouragement there.

The Department of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries, for example, closes its note on conditions of employment by saying “Correspondence will be limited to short-listed candidates only, and if you have not been contacted within three months of the closing date of the advertisement, please accept that your application has been unsuccessful.” Imagine being unemployed, in need of cash and living hand-to-mouth, or having to support a family, and then having to wait for three months to know whether you are “short-listed” or not; and if not, having no communication to tell you that?

It is also interesting to see in this transparent, modern democracy of ours where we profess not to be prejudiced, and where there should be no discrimination, that the same website advertising vacancies and describing the recruitment, states “in order to facilitate the process successfully an indication of race, gender and disability status is required”. Race? Gender? Disability? And I suppose if Lulu Xingwana is involved we would have to admit it if we are Afrikaans!

No wonder the government has to rely on the extensive and extravagant use of consultants. According to the audit of government consultants released by the auditor general on 25 January this year, it cost the country R102 billion to hire experts in various fields, and even ended up in one noted case of hiring a consultant to manage other consultants!

While they solve the immediate problem, they don’t provide the long-term stability and it’s not in their interest to train those without skills. When a consultant contract is terminated, the skills leave the business and the mentoring opportunity disappears.

The money would have been spent much better if full-time permanent appointments were made of suitably skilled people, irrespective of where they come from or what nationalities they bring with them. We should be encouraging people from other countries to come here, to settle and to bring their qualifications and skills to us.

If the government gets nothing else right in the short term, it would be very much to the country’s benefit if it only improved and set an ambitious professional standard for the recruitment of its key service deliverers and its top officials.

Would even this goal, if it could be achieved, prevent the appointment of a cabinet minister, whose job it is to uphold the Constitution, and who makes such disgraceful comments about the race and religion of a major section of the population?

And would the president, with the help of some skilful recruitment, eventually be able to appoint a head of the Special Investigations Unit? This was promised, if you remember, after many delays, for the end of February.Or is that still just a bridge too far at this point? DM

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