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Critical Skills List: a wake-up call for South African education and training systems

South African Institute of Professional Accountants
17 February 2022

Critical Skills List: a wake-up call for South African education and training systems

The government’s latest Critical Skills List includes the occupations of “Tax Professional”, “External Auditor” and “Forensic Accountant”. The full list comprises 101 occupation codes and these critical skills are open to South Africans and foreign nationals that meet the skills requirements.
“South Africa’s local financial professionals – whether they are a Tax Practitioner, Internal Auditor, or Registered Auditor – are included for good reason. They are some of the essential occupational skills in the accountancy industry,” notes Phillip Joubert, manager of the Centre of Tax Excellence (CoTE) at the South African Institute of Professional Accountants (SAIPA). “Furthermore, we would like to see Professional Accountant (SA) included in the list for the same reasons”.

Exodus of Financial Professionals a loss for SA economy

South Africa seems to be a victim of its own success when it comes to producing world class financial professionals.
“Our unique challenges and opportunities have given many financial professionals exposure that their international counterparts will never get”, Joubert explains. “Their experience is in high demand on an international level, so those firms and companies entice local professionals to join them. Many of the younger professionals seem to feel they have a better chance to achieve the future they envisaged for themselves in foreign countries, due in part to South Africa’s socio-economic challenges”.
Joubert says the economic impact of this exodus should not be underestimated.
“It causes generational gaps in the sectors. This is when there are huge differences in employment ages and experience. Furthermore, people could get placed in positions they’re not equipped to handle yet, which could, in turn, lead to failed businesses”, he elaborates. “Finally, losing a big chunk of the economically active population means less taxes are being paid. This leads to less innovation and entrepreneurship and even further unemployment. The situation has a clear and massive ripple effect”.

Combating the skills deficit by addressing the lack of Mentorship and Trainee Opportunities

Producing accredited professionals is one way of combating the skills gap in the various industries listed. It will also lead to creating more opportunities for entry level South African professionals. These professionals need competent and well experienced mentors to guide their professional growth.
The Critical Skills List suggests that there are simply not enough experienced professionals to help bridge the skills gap due to the lack of opportunities available for such professionals in the country.
This is due to the compounded effect of a flailing economy that has severely reduced economic activity and resulted in a loss of jobs and professional advancement opportunities – including those for training and mentorship.
“South Africa is currently experiencing an unprecedented mass unemployment of young and educated professionals. Our focus should be on equipping them with skills and creating opportunities that will enable them to advance in the profession,” says Faith Ngwenya, SAIPA Technical and Standards Executive. “This requires integrated efforts from both the government and the private sector. Failing this we will see a continued rise of unemployed accredited professionals in an economy that desperately needs them.”

Looking Local vs Reaching Abroad

With such high unemployment rates in South Africa, many may question why the focus is on attracting talent from abroad, instead of upskilling local citizens.
Joubert says it is a tough issue to approach.
“We need these listed skills to progress as a country and society, and if we do not have the resources available, we will have to reach elsewhere”.
He says there needs to be more focus on what is being done to entice already skilled expats back to the country. “They can help the economy grow, transfer their skills, knowledge and expertise to the next generation of professionals”.
Secondly, he adds, we need to look at our education and training system and where it fails.
“Are we truly teaching scholars and students the right things? Are we focusing on providing the relevant skills or are we simply trying to keep our heads above water, causing all the important educational factors to fall by the wayside?” he asks.
“South Africa as a country is resource strapped, and we try to plug holes where we can. Even with public and private spheres working together to try and balance all the needs, it will take decisive and strong leadership and dedication to bridge this skills gap”, Joubert concludes.