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Brett Chulu: Deconstructing Zim’s skills deficit

THE challenge of a depleted skills base in Zimbabwe has been a topical subject for some time. I would be the first one to admit that the challenge of a skills deficit is multi-layered and cannot be addressed using linear thinking.

The least we can do to begin unpacking the challenge is to embrace dynamic multi-variate thinking. In the debates on recapitalising our skills base, the human resources (HR) perspectives have been too pedestrian to be of real impact. HR is not just human capital management. This myopic characterisation of HR imposes an artificial intellectual ceiling, limiting HR’s potential contribution to nation-building.
First, we need to rescue the HR agenda by explaining what HR is and is not about.
HR= talent X organisation
Talent is about how people move into, across, up and out of the organisation. Organisation  is about  pro-actively jigging and re-jigging the structure, capabilities and culture of an organisation to create value for the organisation’s stakeholders. The case of Taco Bell will help us flesh out this idea. In the early 1980s US’s Taco Bell, a fast food retail giant’s fortunes were waning. A radical new strategy based on three organisational capabilities was conceived: innovation, efficiency and talent. Discerning readers might question why I referred to the strategy as radical. Innovation and efficiency are strange bed fellows. Innovation raises costs while efficiency seeks to reduce them. The centre-piece of the strategy was to unleash creativity at the store level. That meant for the first time store managers had to be degree holders, including MBAs. But Taco’s organisational layers meant that new ideas from the brilliant, highly educated and well-paid managers would have to go through more than three management layers to get approval.
Taco Bell stripped the layers, leaving managers at the store level with just one management layer to deal with. The three organisational capabilities of innovation, efficiency and talent conspired to trigger an exponential growth in profitability.  Innovations such as warm-and-serve whereby food preparation was outsourced sprang. All that was needed in a Taco Bell fast food outlet was just to unpack and warm the food. Individual stores came up with ideas such as serving food in schools and at beaches, for instance, deploying the warm-and-serve capability.
The point of the case is that talent was a consequence of strategy and ranked equally with other capabilities which HR addressed with undivided enthusiasm.
In an effort to widen and sharpen the understanding of Zimbabwe’s skills challenge we developed a paper at the Strategic Human Resources Initiative Network (Shrin). Shrin is a Zimbabwe-based network/think-tank that brings together non-HR and HR business leaders and academics to discuss business issues from a strategic HR perspective, as illustrated by the Taco Bell case.
A phenomenon our paper looked at closely is what we have coined skills cannibalisation. Skills cannibalisation is when critical and difficult-to-replace skills are made redundant by people taking positions and economic pursuits that require them to use a different skills set. The paper identified six principal ways skills cannibalisation has been occurring in this country.

  • First, the informalisation of the Zimbabwean economy during the past ten years cannibalised essential skills. We do not have the statistics to show the numbers of skilled people who left informal employment to ‘work for themselves’ (a transliteration from isiNdebele and chiShona). Anecdotal evidence shows that many skilled people were sucked into the vortex of wheeling and dealing. Largely, this wheeling and dealing hardly qualifies as entrepreneurship as it involved pursuing arbitrage opportunities (the practice of obtaining goods at a lower price and selling them at a higher price in the same market). Examples of such arbitrage opportunities abound such as buying fuel from one garage and selling it to the next garage and foreign currency dealing. With the re-emergence of a formal economy arbitrage largely vanished overnight. The question is: where are these skills now and what efforts are being made to rehabilitate them? Employers appear to be wary of re-engaging people who have not been practising for a long time, not so much on the grounds of skills redundancy, but the fear of bringing into the organisation people who have assimilated cultures at variance with sound business. Are organisations being overly cautious and paranoid? Would anyone want to re-engage people who had been used to making quick money?
  • Second, some skilled Zimbabweans that emigrated overseas are doing menial tasks. It is an open secret that a great number of  skilled Zimbabweans who have migrated to countries such as Britain work as blue-collar employees. Some have switched careers and have trained as nurses. For example we have educators and bankers who are training as nurses overseas.
  • Third, some essential skills have been cannibalised by the not-for profits requiring only a fraction of those skills on the back of generous pay packages and working conditions. This applies to professionals who have remained in the country and those who have emigrated. For instance, I have a cousin, a brilliant UZ-trained medical doctor who scooped numerous book awards. She emigrated to one of the countries of the Great Lakes of East Africa. She is no longer practising medicine but working as a senior manager in some NGO dealing with community health issues. We may never know the extent of such serious talent cannibalisation until research is done.
  • Fourth, anecdotal evidence shows that some skills have been cannibalised by the emerging agricultural sector as result of the land reform programme. For lack of solid research we can only hypothesise. However, our hypothesis is without basis. We have a small sample of professionals who have retired from active employment to pursue farming. That in itself is not a problem. The reality still remains that the emerging agricultural sector is indeed cannibalising essential skills. The extent of cannibalisation and its impact will remain debatable until solid research quantifies this phenomenon.
  • Fifth, organisations have been practising internal cannibalisation when they move up technical skills into general managerial positions. The skills needed to be successful as a general manager differ markedly with the technical skills for which the promoted manager was trained for. What makes this cannibalisation is that, normally, succession planning is largely not done for technical positions. Even though a replacement is found, the level of competence reached by the departing employee is not matched.
  • Sixth, another form of skills cannibalisation occurs when organisations’ policies encourage early retirement leading to a nation’s premature depletion of essential skills. Normally, the retiring employees use their packages to fund cannibalisation-promoting new pursuits.

Going forward, we foresee skills cannibalisation taking new dimensions. A potential area is the health sector where the supply of trained nurses appears to be beginning to exceed demand. A large number of nurses, might, as a stop-gap measure, work as temporary teachers.
Skills cannibalisation can create a skills deficit even when skilled people are physically present in the country. Cannibalisation can also severely constrain a country’s supply of top skills, entrenching structural weaknesses into the economy through ratcheting labour prices and learning costs.
Human capital mobilisation strategies must be awake to these omnipresent realities.


  • Share ideas at brettchulu@consultant.com

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