We’ve all seen the numbers around the African talent gap. Yes, African CEOs are more concerned about talent among their barriers to success than the top brass in other geographies. Yes, tertiary education in Africa lags behind other regions. Yes, African business is still more dependent on expatriate staff than we would like it to be. It makes me wonder, though.
What is the message that we, as business leaders, recruiters, corporate human resources departments or career seekers, should take from this? What is the picture of an African talent gap saying to us? Looking at the market, I think it is saying “opportunity”. It is saying, to employers and employees, “differentiate yourself, if you want to succeed”. We can all look on the SWOT diagram as a mirror image and see the talent gap as opportunity, at least as much as threat.
In this market, employers, candidates and recruitment agents all need to work to set ourselves apart
Certainly, Africa is not an easy recruitment market. Consider though, what recruitment market is easy these days? Years ago, employers were looking for candidates with the right skills. Skills were the only consideration, and we have since added filter upon filter to what we are looking for; culture, soft skills, vision and leadership potential. The list goes on. The addition of layers of sophistication to our understanding of the type of talent we want, added to a proliferation of niches in business generally, has made a large number of markets, for discerning employers in all geographies, what are known as ‘candidate-poor’ markets. The needle in the haystack has become very small indeed. The result is that we are all, as recruiters, employers and employees, really singing for our supper. We need to work to set ourselves apart.
When we look at the effect this is having on African business, it is undeniable that this talent gap exists. Anyone who says it is closing needs to think again, but its existence is not going to obstruct strategic business goals.
The talent gap will not prevent Africa realising its potential, because the mentality of African business is overwhelmingly positive
Look at average time to fill, as recorded in EY’s ‘Realising Potential’ Sub-Saharan focused talent survey of 2013/14. Speed at getting people in post is a critical recruitment metric. If you are slow, you are burning opportunity. Yet despite the talent gap, more than two thirds of reported roles were filled within four months for all but the most senior hires, whether hiring expats or local talent. That is not bad going at all, and thinking about it, how many African businesses do we see turning away opportunity for lack of talent? I cannot recall many, and perhaps that is because the African business mentality is an optimistic one – smart enough to see the threat on that SWOT, but wise enough to focus on the opportunity. Smart enough to fix the weakness while leaning on its strengths for growth.
Consider Africa’s mobile technology. In a continent where connectivity is a major, major barrier to progress, they beat the western world to popular mobile money. Look at the indigenous e-commerce businesses popping up now for a parallel. Africa is not importing technology start-ups from the States as Europe does, it is rather making its own; with only 16% of the population online.
With such a mentality, it is no surprise to see that African business, faced with a talent gap, will either leap over it or build a bridge. This is certainly what we see in the business of recruiting for Africa.
By facing challenges head on, the talent gap will be closed one bit at a time
This is not to be, in any way, dismissive of the challenges faced. Diversity represents an enormous challenge, as has been noted in this supplement, but African CEOs are less worried about diversity than they have ever been. Why such confidence? Because business leaders know they are dealing with the issue. Our clients across the continent include HR departments led, in at least an equal part, by women. Why? Because top African female professionals are out there, in volume, and because the employers want that issue dealt with today, while driving towards strategic goals.
It is a similar story for the part of the talent gap that is the result of education. Look at the private universities. Look at ISPTEC in Angola, run in part by the state and in part by the employers. Look at Lagos Business School, with its top, top alumni. Look at initiatives like the African Leadership Academy for honing talent. Look at charities like Education Africa, focused on education as a solution to the greatest inequalities. Education is clearly a problem in many facets, from the most impoverished communities to the dearth of internationally credible business schools. Here though, come solution providers, and in the meantime, if the best and brightest go to overseas schools, what is the difference between that and what is going on elsewhere in the world? Pick up the CV book of a leading business school anywhere in Europe or the United States and you will find it comprised almost entirely of overseas students. Africans, Americans, Europeans, Asians, all coming together to study in one location or another. For them, studying abroad is not a necessity; it is a competitive advantage that will lead to their success story.
The Diaspora will be part of the solution, as will the movement of top African talent around the continent
Speaking of Africans studying abroad, working abroad or being raised abroad. Let us talk about the Diaspora. When we were founded in 2002, our raison d’être was bringing the Diaspora back to work in Africa. Now, as that same EY survey attests, business leaders see the Diaspora as a key recruitment source more than ever. There may be teething issues around salary, sometimes cultural adjustments perhaps, but as an internationally experienced, regionally sensitive group, they have massive potential to reduce African business’ reliance on expatriate staff. We have been bringing the Diaspora home for 13 years, and we are being asked to do it more than ever.
Today the Diaspora is our solution, tomorrow those education initiatives pay off and we’re mobilising the workforce everyone knows will overtake India and China in the not too distant future. The talent gap is a spur to help us raise our game, and Africa is going to raise it fast.
Another trend we see increasing is recruitment across African borders, partly eased by a more connected African polity, and partly spurred by the presence of increasing numbers of qualified, senior and importable African talent on the continent. We are all, agencies and employers alike, looking for ways to engage talent pool. In our own experience, this has manifested in the increased importance of our alumni.
We were hired in 2002 to provide future leadership talent via recruitment events. In the years since, that ‘future’ talent has become ‘today’ talent. One of our first recruits, returning to South Africa has recently been promoted to CEO in a different SADC country for one of the world’s biggest banks. Associate to CEO in 13 years. For the Diaspora of African students and professionals around the world, what an incentive to return this is. For professionals on the continent, that speed with which the truly excellent can flourish must provide such motivation to make the most of this talent market. Connecting more and more with alumni groups is a key piece of the puzzle for agencies, employers and the bridging of the talent gap. Not only are they a source of potential hires, but their value in networking and knowledge transfer holds tremendous potential for the sourcing and development of African talent.
This candidate-poor market forces us to find solutions, across employer brand, employee value proposition, social sourcing, development and retention. This is where the best agencies and HR departments will raise the game. A desire for excellence among our clients engendered the Talent Agenda Series. What is now being flagged in consultancy surveys is already being solved by our clients on the ground, and they are coming together to talk about it, with that optimistic, positive mentality to the fore.
I will always remember something the Head of HR at Afreximbank, Stephen Tio Kauma, said at our Johannesburg Conference in 2014 – that he did not care if the Diaspora he recruited into his bank came in, skilled up and left within a few years, as a rising talent tide lifts the boats of everyone doing business on the continent. The Talent Agenda Series has seen the same altruistic attitude to HR knowledge transfer, which is remarkable really, in a candidate-poor market where differentiation is key.
The ability to differentiate what they offer is what will separate the successful businesses and candidates from the unsuccessful as the talent gap persists
Back to where we began then, with differentiation. The employment market has changed. Transparency and technology plays a part, communication, yes, but also, as I see it, that market of niches. We do not all want the same CV, the same graduate trainees, the same experience anymore. We want unique. We want a diverse mix of culture and people to spark creativity. We want different ways of looking at a problem. And as candidates, we want an employer who recognises and, crucially, rewards our differences.
Differentiation: it is part proposition, part positioning and part promotion. More and more, this is what will define how we, as employers and employees, get connected. What you might see as a talent gap, from one point of view, from another perspective is the synapse across which the impulse of our connections will surge. What chance that a talent gap will hold back the African boom? None, when the ability of employers and employees to differentiate produces such electricity.