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Brain drain – the emigration of skilled South Africans – has become more and more prominent over the last couple of decades. After the civil unrest in July – even more people started grappling with the uncertainty that staying in South Africa presents. FNB, along with many other businesses in the market, have reignited a call for the private and public sectors to prevent ‘brain drain’ by investing in high-quality critical skills in domestic markets. BizNews interviewed Jacques Celliers, the CEO of FNB, to find out more about the brain drain challenge that South Africa faces and the ways in which young South Africans can equip themselves with critical skills. Celliers’ message to young South Africans is uplifting and sorely needed in these testing times. – Nadya Swart
Jacques Celliers on his background before FNB:
I mean, personally, I have an engineering background from Stellenbosch University and I spent a few years in [the] engineering space myself before transitioning into sort of the financial services sector. And I think at the time, you know, it was the year 2000, actually, since I joined FirstRand. And I think the excitement for me personally was just to see how much relevance an engineering skill set, or I guess all alternative and nontraditional finance skills, have had in participating in a very exciting transition for financial services as a broader sector. So [I’m] delighted that so many other types of disciplines are able to participate now. So it’s a very exciting time.
On ‘brain drain’ in South Africa:
So, it’s not a secret that, you know, our country certainly over the years has had a challenge to firstly develop talent across the sectors and then secondly, to then retain the talent. And what is very special about our country – and actually our continent – is that we have such opportunities and such an excitement in many of the topics which actually, in many ways, we have executed sort of world leading ways of doing things. If you take mobile banking and just how we’re using FinTech and secure tech and RegTech and all of these enablements that we need in our industry.
So whether you apply, I guess, engineering or technology or quant skills at finance or at mining or at agriculture or at, you know, sort of the tourism sectors – there’s such an application for all these types of skill sets. And clearly, from a business, we need those skills. And it’s great to be in a country where there are so many opportunities. It’s just important that we all make them visible to talent so people can see it and they can experience it. You know, 20 years ago, I don’t think a quant would have said that there is a great opportunity in banking or an engineer would have said that there’s a great opportunity in banking. And nowadays, I mean, it’s important that we position our opportunities and that talent gets exposed to them.
Look, we can’t force people to stay, but as long as we have opportunities to display, people are excited about these things and they have an opportunity to shine and add value and purpose to their lives. That’s our role and ultimately, that makes it easier for us to manage our businesses. The more talent we have, the better chance we have at solving all of the needs our communities have.
On the reasons to stay in South Africa despite our exorbitant taxes and other challenges:
I can’t go into all the reasons, but I think people all have different purposes in life. Our job, clearly, as it relates to adding some magic into financial services, as it relates to our offering in the markets that we participate in – these executions are really, really exciting. And, you know, if there’s some talent out there that in their own mind was looking for something to do, that could add value, that could make a meaningful difference – then these are great times. You know, when we started our careers 20 years ago, I think the opportunity to shine was quite difficult because, I mean, I think our tool sets were quite outdated.
If you think about how long it took you to climb a ladder in your career and to ultimately try and get into some impactful roles… In today’s execution with all the data and technology around, I mean, you really can add a tremendous amount of value in a very short space of time. Our challenge is just to demonstrate that opportunity for people. You know, I think the days of people wanting to work forever in a specific sort of area – even if it’s not just in one corporate, but one business or one industry – people really want to walk in, have an impact, make a difference.
And I think the talent of today are looking for opportunities to make a difference. Now, whether that application is into solving climate issues, for access to financial services issues or for developing infrastructure that can make society function better – I mean, these are all unbelievable things. And if you stand back after having spent your career in something – I think people will know that you want to have made a difference. Money certainly is one of them, you know, and with that comes all the consequence of taxes and all that stuff. But I don’t think that that’s for many people, as you build your careers, you know, ultimately the only driver. People really want to make a difference.
And we’re looking for those types of people to come and work with us. So all countries have their challenges. There’s no perfect place out there. And certainly, you know, just when you’re on top of something, you might be faced with something else that you didn’t actually see happen. But what we found over the last year, certainly as the pandemic hit us, is the amount of innovation that this, again, unleashed. You know, all these sorts of challenges that a society faces are great opportunities for innovation and magic making to occur. And some of it sometimes is new industries and totally new ways of doing things. And other times it’s just refreshing what we are busy with. If you think about financial services, specifically, just the role it plays in enabling communities or societies; whether it’s responding to riots or pandemics, the health matters or even, you know, electricity shortages and outages – these are real things, right? And it’s great to be in a business and in a country where you can actually make a difference. And that ultimately is a holistic value prop that we bring to people.
On whether – if he were currently in his early 20s – he would emigrate:
It’s a very interesting question. I mean, I finished my engineering degree in 1994. That was the year when, you know, the new (sort of) change of power happened. And I remember that many of the similar conversations at the time were like, ‘Should we stay or should we go?’ And some of our friends went and some of our friends stayed. And if I look at three decades later, the journeys people have travelled – then I think, you know, in the early 20s phase that people are in – those are not the years that you need to necessarily select your destination forever.
On what young people in South Africa can do to better equip themselves with critical skills:
I think the real thing for younger people is to firstly find a passion – it’s just important to find passion. But today’s execution, no matter what your passion is, requires a tremendous amount of understanding and appreciation for the role technology and engineering and data play in those things.
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