/ 22 November 2010

Immigrants can solve skills fix

Immigrants Can Solve Skills Fix

The only plausible solution to South Africa’s skills crisis in the short and medium term is to attract large numbers of skilled immigrants, according to a report released by the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE).

The report, “Skills, Growth and Borders: Managing Migration in South Africa’s National Interest”, strongly recommends that an infusion of skills in South Africa is needed for higher economic growth, and summarises its seven-year research project.

Ann Bernstein, the CDE executive director, said that the only way to achieve this higher economic growth rapidly was through immigration.

The report noted that, although there were no reliable estimates of the number of skilled people needed in South Africa, it was “likely to be well over the estimate of 502 000 published by the department of labour in 2008”.

Bernstein said that South Africa’s domestic skills production system was grossly inefficient and would take years to reform.

Promises and recognitions
The report noted that, in response to mounting evidence of South Africa’s growing skills shortage, the government had been promising for more than 10 years to make it easier for skilled immigrants to enter the country, but to no avail. But it commended the government for recognising current shortcomings in migration policy.

“There have been some genuine improvements, but implementation has been slow — If we are serious about achieving a much higher growth rate, a bold and determined new approach on this issue is vital.”

Bernstein said South Africa’s skilled migration regime was “poorly conceived, narrowly based and ineffective”, which affirmed the report’s findings: “Children fare badly in almost every international test of literacy and numeracy, technical and artisanal training has all but ground to a halt, and universities produce too few engineers, managers and other skilled people.

“To make matters worse, skilled people have been leaving the country at an alarming rate.” These challenges, the report said, meant that the entire system of skills production needed to be reformed, although it would not be enough to turn the situation around.

“It takes a generation before school reform produces well-taught learners, we cannot train technicians without skilled and experienced trainers, and our universities are large, sluggish bureaucracies, which will take years to reform.”

The benefits of more skilled immigrants, the CDE believes, would be numerous: “Immigrants can spur growth by filling the skilled jobs that firms need in order to expand, providing the entrepreneurial skills needed to start new businesses, and adding the education, training, engineering, medical and other skills needed to improve service delivery.”

The report addressed local attitudes to foreigners entering South Africa, describing it as “important for the debate about skilled immigration”. These attitudes, it said, were often based on exaggerated fears, which hindered progress on managed migration and had an impact on policies affecting skilled migration.

The misconceptions had skewed the debate in several ways: it over-estimated the number of foreigners in the country, it underestimated the range of skills needed in South Africa, and it dismissed irregular migrants, who were already here, as a source of skills.

The economic potential of immigration needed to be recognised, the report said: “On the whole, irregular immigrants make a positive economic contribution.

They tend to be more educated and often have more work and entrepreneurial experience. As a result, they are significantly less likely to be out of work than locals, and much more likely to be self-employed.” But the report made it clear that South Africans would not easily accept the need to import skilled people if the government was unable to address its inability to manage the flow of immigrants into the country.

Bernstein noted that, though the system governing corporate and intra-company work permits was functioning better than it once did, the quota system (through which skilled migrants could enter the country without a job offer) was almost entirely unused.

The report recommended that South Africa needed a new approach to managing migration, which had to achieve three goals: restore the credibility of the state with respect to immigration policy and implementation, realise the economic potential of immigration by actively recruiting very large numbers of skilled migrants, and take the pressure off our struggling asylum-processing and enforcement systems.

“We need a policy that welcomes, with an absolute minimum of conditions, anyone with skills,” Bernstein said. “Migration cannot be stopped or rigidly controlled. With smart leadership and sound policies, we could reap enormous benefits from the energetic people who want to migrate to this country.”