Competing for Africa’s Human Resources

Employers on the continent need the right talent to capitalize on the economic boom

There is unparalleled optimism about the growth prospects on the African continent—7 of the 10 world’s fastest growing economies are in Sub-Saharan Africa, and by 2050, the region will have a larger and younger workforce than China or India.

The continent stands at the brink of an employment explosion—where employers, large and small alike, are desperate for the right kind of talent to capitalize on this economic boom.

Employers and academic institutions alike make need to revise their current approaches to emerge successful in the changing landscape.

First, while organizations across the continent covet top talent, they are subject to fairly routine recruitment practices. Most employers are reluctant to look beyond well-established universities and familiar institutions, or past conventional markers of success. While academic excellence will continue to remain an important baseline, employers need to be mindful that some of their best employees will not necessarily be the smartest in the academic sense, but they will likely be the quickest learners, the most entrepreneurial, the most emotionally intelligent, and the most resilient. Talent managers on the continent will have to learn how to evaluate candidates on their potential—and not on performance and book-smarts alone.

Second, employers on the continent spend thousands of dollars on graduate training programs that have both high sunk costs and attrition rates, often compensating for a lack of graduate readiness. A simpler way to vet entry level hires for fit is using an “internship” approach, which offers choice to both parties. In short-term internships, employers get to “try before they buy” their talent, and entry level candidates get to understand what it means to work in a given sector or country with no strings attached. Experts from the Centre for Economic Development and the World Bank note that one of the most promising methods for business sector growth in Africa is through employing increasing numbers of people of all ages, particularly young people—exposing university students to work allows for organizations to cultivate brand loyalty and importantly, to skill up the workforce over longer periods of time.

Third, most organizations across Africa suffer from an over-reliance on expatriate talent to fulfil mission-critical positions. While expats fill an important role in helping bring in much needed skills, African employers need to more actively recruit from the African diaspora to meet their workforce needs. Relying on ex-pats typically comes at an extremely high financial cost to organizations as it usually means short tenures and a lack of valuable local knowledge. Positioning organizations for growth on the continent will require a pan-African perspective in addition to the basic skills—for example, growing a retail brand in West Africa will require understanding Francophone and Anglophone markets. As more and more organizations recruit from other African countries and the returning African diaspora (Ernst and Young Realizing Potential 2014), a pan-African outlook and a globally competitive skillset will be vital to sustain the recent growth that African economies have experienced.

Finally, higher educational institutions will need a complete overhaul to ensure that their students are ready for life and for the workplace. In order for educational institutions to continue to remain relevant in the age of digital classrooms, self-directed learning, and corporate training, they will need to recalibrate their programs to encourage students to develop “skills for life,” with a focus on learning agility, in addition to mastery of technical skills.

The competition for talent in Africa is just beginning, and both employers and educational institutions alike need to ready themselves for success.

AuthorSharmi Surianarain

About the Author: Sharmi Surianarain is the Director of Lifelong Engagement at African Leadership Academy.


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