The New Times (Kigali)

29 June 2012

Rwanda: 'Johnny Come Lately' On Labour Migration

opinion

About a year ago, a friend and I started up a consulting business. Its core focus is business advisory services. We had a simple model. Recruit fresh graduates, train them for three to six months under an apprenticeship contract, retain the good ones and allow the rest to find opportunities elsewhere.

It all went well for about eight months until we started to get hit with resignation letters at every end of month. We scratched our heads trying to figure out what was sending people out of the door. Was it the pay?

So we raised salaries, paid lunch and transport allowances. Things came to a head when one really promising junior associate resigned a month after his salary had just been doubled! It was obviously not the pay. I took it upon myself to investigate.

I had looked within the firm and found nothing particularly hostile to the employees and so I decided to look beyond the firm.

It soon emerged that there was a trend. In Rwanda, once you have worked in a place for three years, you are regarded as a historical or long serving member of staff.

If you stay for more than five years, you are a dinosaur! It's quite the in-thing to work at a place two to three years, court a new employer or get head hunted, have your pay doubled and off you go only to repeat the cycle two years later.

I remember my father telling me this story. In 1978, at the relatively young age of 48, he quit his job as a senior technocrat in a government department. He had joined the department of Lands and Survey as a junior staff 20 years earlier straight from college.

At the time, he was seen as a maverick! No one was pounding on his door demanding to replace him. The job paid well. Everyone wondered why he couldn't be like everybody else and keep it till senescence!

Apparently what looked like a rush decision, served him well and he remains the envy of his peers to date. He went into private business and the gods of fortune smiled upon him.

The legacy of the colonial administration had structures that had layers upon layers that one had to work through for a lifetime to get to the top.

These were specifically designed to give Africans a sense of advancement without really holding the key offices in which decisions were made.

In the uncertain economic times that were the mid 70s to the late 80s, it was only logical to hold onto your job if you had one till you got a call from the guy upstairs. The situation was so dire across Africa, that people started to look to the high seas, the horizon and beyond. The boat crossings from Morocco to Spain began.

Students that got scholarships to Europe and America did not return home when their studies were done. The words Brain-drain and Diaspora made an appearance on the political scene.

Fast forward to 2012, opportunities abound both at home and beyond. People that were born in the Diaspora and breastfed on fantastic stories from the motherland want to make Africa their home.

The rule of law is taking root; war criminals are being tried albeit by our former colonial masters at the ICC. That is a discussion for another day.

And so the young people joining work today do not bare the baggage of their parents. They see a blindingly bright tomorrow. When they earn scholarships to Europe or North America, they are not fazed by skyscrapers, endless paved roads and the bright lights.

That is because they are seeing the same emerge at home. They can have it all; a world class education, global exposure and the security of having family and friends close by.

The employer at home must be ready for this class of recruits. They want to be stimulated by their work. They are not just waiting for a monthly pay cheque.

They are citizens of the world who need to be engaged in the events shaping their futures. If their jobs do not make them feel relevant, they will move on faster than Donald Trump can say "you are fired!" Take an example;

I have a friend that I met at University. He trained as a Civil engineer, later specialising in water engineering. That is building dams, bridges and the like.

Today, he works as a customer Relations Manager for Citibank, a leading American Banking group. No amount of pay related incentives would have kept him in his old job. He was looking for something totally different in life and that's how he ended up at Citibank.

Companies like Google have realised this. They focus their employee policies on intellectual stimulation. It's not all about suits and ties, cubicles and deadlines.

At Google headquarters, employees have free haircuts, laundry services and swimming. The company provides video games, pool and foosball tables for employees to relax during working hours.

So a long day at the office does not mean being stuck at your desk sipping coffee till midnight. You can swim the stress off and get back to work.

These conditions are certainly beyond the average Rwandan business. The point here is to think outside the box.

Employers need to first appreciate that their staff are their number one asset. The next step is to focus company resources on making the employees comfortable in doing their work.

Happy employees mean more productivity for the business. No one will be rushing out of the door at a company that is doing financially well and takes good care of its employees.

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