Career and workforce management

The Future of Work in Sub-Saharan Africa: Are you Ready?

Following the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021, the dynamics of the workplace environment may have changed forever in Africa.

The COVID19 pandemic in a way showed everyone the possibilities that had hitherto only existed in the figment of the imagination of a few. And even though many would have argued that the workplace culture was expected to evolve with time given the spate of technological advancement, no one could have predicted it would come so soon.

At the moment, so many questions beg for answers as to what the future of work really is on the African continent, and any forward-thinking executive ought to be taking proactive steps to imagine the possibilities and future-proof his or her business concerns by adapting his or her workplace culture around them. This is especially important when one considers the peculiarity of the African continent.

Factors such as far-reaching advancement and change in technology, and the lure of overseas work for experienced hands are all questions that may impact the future African workforce. Will mass migration and a shortage of skilled hands impact on the African workplace of the future? Will African countries be able to integrate commercially and financially, thereby fostering growth and employment? Or will this lead to trade wars becoming the norm as the world increasingly becomes fragmented? 

Again, how do you stay a step ahead of these challenges to continue to attract the best of hands? The answer lies in not moving against the tide, since you may never win, but adjusting and patterning your expectations around the changing dynamics.

The present reality

The reality in Africa is that the continent may be heading into a period where it will be faced with the shortage of skilled workforce not because they are not available, but because they have been snapped up by European countries.

Data shows that there is an ongoing demand for Africa’s skilled workforce from across the world, and especially Europe as it looks at plugging the hole in its impending shortage of skilled workforce.

According to the Center for Global Development, there will be 95 million fewer working-age people in Europe by 2050 than in 2015, under business as usual. While the European labour market saw one of its most historic years in 2021, its number of unfilled vacancies rose to unprecedented levels even as the continent’s population gradually gets older. 

With this scenario, Europe will be looking to Africa to help plug this hole, which it will do by either exporting jobs or encouraging immigration. And this has started. You only need to wake up and smell the cherries. In fact, the center says that current trends suggest that the likely scale of migration under “business as usual” is grossly insufficient to meet Europe’s needs or to maximise Africa’s benefits. 

So, what this portends for African countries is that local companies will continue to experience a shortage in skilled manpower. At the moment, there is a current wave of skilled workforce migration to European countries. For example, Nigeria is currently experiencing a wave of migration of its best hands across a number of sectors. Sectors such as tech, consultancy and health are some of the most hit.

The Nigerian tech ecosystem, which is still relatively in its early years, is seeing a wave of migration of its top-tier software engineers for the promise of better remuneration and a higher standard of living in countries like Canada and the UK. This is because, according to a 2017 Startup Genome report, while Lagos is the most valuable of Africa’s tech ecosystems, it is also, rather unfortunately, the least lucrative for software engineers.

Even the option of remote working for foreign companies does little to assuage the shortage of availability in the talent pool. This means that local companies have to make do with the little left. In the health sector, despite Nigeria having a low doctor to patient ratio of 1:2,753 as of 2020, a sharp contrast to the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s minimum recommended ratio of 1:400 or 600, Nigeria still recorded a drove of its skilled medical workforce leaving the country. According to the Medical and Dental Consultants Association of Nigeria (MDCAN), more than 100 of its members have left the country in the past 24 months as of January 2022. Also, according to Dr. Otabor Christopher, about 2000 Nigeria trained medical doctors leave Nigeria annually to seek employment abroad. This number he says is tripled in the case of nurses, especially specialist nurses such as critical care nurses, nephrology nurses, oncology nurses, etc.

It’s not all gloom from the African perspective, as according to The Africa Competitiveness Report 2017, released by the World Economic Forum, the African Development Bank, and the World Bank Group, Africa’s working age population is expected to grow by 450 million people, or close to 70% by 2035. This means that Africa indeed has the numbers to cater to the global expectation in terms of workforce but a major point to note here is that with the lure from beyond, and the growing rate of migration, Africa may begin to suffer from a lack of highly skilled and experienced workforce as these ones are snapped up by companies from Europe leaving behind tier 2 and 3 individuals of the African workforce.

The issue of unemployability vs unemployment

One critical issue the migration of skilled workers brings to the fore is the reality that despite the large number of graduates being churned out in countries like Nigeria, there is the sad reality of a large section of the entire workforce that is unemployable, or to put it mildly, not skilled enough. These are individuals who need to be constantly supervised and put through things and might need to be micromanaged.

With top talents picking the lucrative positions abroad and either travelling out or simply working remotely, a good number of what can be termed as the ‘Instagram and social media generation’ are what local employers may have to settle for in filling up spaces within their workforce as the days go by. This generation is largely made up of poor-quality graduates with little to no value but with high expectations. They constitute a section with a high attrition rate, have no loyalty to any company but believe they should be paid with little or no contribution to the growth of the company.

Individuals in this group, usually made up of Gen Zs, have a high turnover rate and are job hoppers who move from one company to another within a short space of time rather than staying and learning on the job.

What is the solution?

It appears like the pandemic years have really shown us how much of what is actually possible, a reality many could have sworn before then as an impossible feat. The reality of the future of work in Sub-Saharan Africa is that of a highly decentralised work culture where remote work will be much favoured and where workers and employers will collaborate more remotely than physically.

We cannot afford to fully ditchthe traditional work culture where workers report to work daily, but the reality as we go on is that the hybrid model is the future. Employers thus must begin to fashion ways to adapt to this new reality. The reality is that anyone who remains rigid may not get the very best hands easily but may have to ‘share’ the same with others in the age of remote work.

For the progressive human resource team and employers out there, having a few core staff who work on a hybrid basis along with a pool of pay-per-service contractor employees (consultants, freelancers) may be the way to go.

In fact, the benefits of having a reduced workforce that reports to a physical office space are  many. Employers have less space to pay for, and can adopt a co-working space model where they simply pay for a few desks with all the logistics connected to running an office taken off their shoulders. On the national level, remote work leads to fewer cars on the road, less pollution, and families have better opportunities to bond and grow together. 

With foresight, we are really going into an era of much more possibilities. With expenses saved in terms of running a full-fledged office space, highly skilled workers can be employed or contracted. You get the job done, and everyone is happy, as this also affords the freelancer the opportunity to continue to provide services to both foreign and local companies subject to their time availability. The freelancers/consultants have freedom to work from anywhere, and you have fewer administrative issues to worry about. It really is a win-win situation.

Adapting to the new normal

While there is still a level of opposition to the concept of remote work or a hybrid nature where Work from Home (WFH) and physical presence in the office are substantially juggled, it is only a matter of time as this obviously has come to stay.

Again, on the flip side, the concept of remote work is definitely here to stay and companies, especially African startups, must begin to explore the possibility of a largely remote-based workforce. When one considers the advantages a remote workforce has, it’s a no-brainer that anyone would object to it.

While many still argue about the efficiency of individuals running a remote system, what should suffice here is the prompt delivery of top-notch work. And the truth is, there are tons of young Africans who will deliver on this.

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