Picture: 123RF/KANTVER
Picture: 123RF/KANTVER

This is a difficult time to be a young and driven professional in corporate SA. The country’s dire economic situation has resulted in the implementation of severe cost-cutting measures across most corporations, leading to drastic hiring freezes and mass retrenchments. Unfortunately, in such a climate, there is also a growing narrative that formal and informal executive education is a frivolous expense that should be reduced, and that employees must simply consider themselves “lucky to even have a job”.

While spending less on developing talent may appear to save companies money in the short term, the long-term effect of cutting back on professional development opportunities will surely result in a less engaged and productive workforce, and will ultimately lead to an accelerated brain drain.

July’s quarterly labour survey by Stats SA found that unemployment rose to 29% in the second quarter of 2019, which is 9.4% higher than the same time in 2018.

In a climate with increasing unemployment rates and limited job opportunities, fewer mid-level to senior managers will be vacating their current positions anytime soon. This will result in scarce opportunities for young professionals to replace them. As potential promotion opportunities continue to decrease, employers will not have as many options for retaining high-potential employees. The combination of reduced opportunities for job mobility and cost-cutting of executive education creates a perception among globally in-demand talent that there are diminishing opportunities to grow professionally at home. 

The global war for talent is intensifying, with Canada aiming to attract 1-million skilled immigrants over the next three years. According to its minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship, new arrivals will “help us sustain our labour force, support economic growth and spur innovation”.

To the south, US president Donald Trump announced in May that he intends to introduce a merit-based immigration system, which will attract “the best and brightest all around the world”.

In early August, British prime minister Boris Johnson announced on social media that, ahead of Brexit, his government plans to introduce a points-based fast-track immigration route to encourage “elite researchers and specialists in science” to work in the UK.

SA’s highly skilled young professionals are a scarce commodity that we, as a country, cannot afford to lose. Rather than invest less in our talent during tough economic times, it is precisely during downward spirals that we must prioritise their personal and professional development, as they become increasingly susceptible to leaving the country as our economic prospects worsen. 

Gen-Z, those born after 1996, is described by Deloitte as the “true product of a globalised world, always connected through the constantly available internet and at ease with ever-evolving technologies”. US business publication Fast Company further describes them as “savvy enough to see beyond ping-pong tables and brightly coloured walls and look for companies that invest in their people and offer a growth path”.

The Chicago-based La Salle Network’s recent report, “What the Class of 2019 Wants”, showed that 76% of Gen-Z employees prioritise opportunities for growth and expect a promotion every one to two years. The report recommends that employers communicate to their Gen-Z staffers a clear career path, highlight training and development opportunities and showcase promotability. While it is commendable that some corporations have recently introduced relaxed dress codes and remote working, wearing jeans to the office and occasionally working from home will never supersede the intrinsic value that young professionals place on personal and professional growth. 

As the world shrinks, our emerging talent will need to acquire new hard and soft skills on a continuous basis to keep up with fast changes in the workplace, while competing with their more highly trained international peers. Leading economies, such as the US, invest about $200bn annually in corporate training and development, as reported in Harvard Business Review’s The Future of Leadership Development. By investing less in the executive education and development of our country’s most promising talent, corporate SA risks cultivating a generation of stunted white-collar workers who are being pushed to seek fulfilling careers abroad — a reality that, according to several senior banking and legal executives we have engaged with, is already happening.

Should SA corporations continue to view executive education as a luxury, they will increasingly and inevitably lose their top talent to those countries proactively recruiting skilled workers and providing them with continued opportunities for growth.

Studies have shown that decreased employee engagement and development leads to higher absenteeism and lower productivity, ultimately resulting in a 65% lower share price over time.

Millennial and Gen-Z professionals who remain in the country and are underinvested in will become even more disengaged from their work, which does not bode well for SA’s labour productivity and global competitiveness.

• Brotman is founder of En-novate and MacChambers founder of Kula, both of whom operate in executive education and leadership development.