South Africa's escalating engineering crisis

By Kaizer Nyatsumba Time of article published Oct 23, 2017

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South Africa is grappling with an acute skills shortage in a number of key economic sectors. Various studies and commentaries point to a growing, serious mismatch between the skills demanded by an increasingly sophisticated economy and those in supply.

Regrettably, at a time when many are heralding the advent of the fourth industrial revolution, South Africa is not training enough engineers, artisans or technicians to deliver on the National Development Plan's long-awaited R845 billion strategic infrastructure projects.

We are by no means alone in facing this challenge in the world today, but our situation appears to be among the most acute. We find ourselves in the company of other developing countries where crucial infrastructure projects compete for a diminishing skills pool.

For the country to remain globally competitive, the business community must be on the cutting edge of technological advancement and innovation. We must be willing to make the necessary investments in technologies in order to reduce our production costs and ensure that we remain competitive both domestically and internationally. This is not always easy when the country does not have an adequately trained workforce, especially when it comes to engineering professionals.

According to the Manufacturing, Engineering and Related Services Sector Education and Training Authority, the shortage of highly skilled individuals is one of the factors that have contributed to the slow adoption of technology, lower productivity, low competitiveness and high production costs in our country. Developing and retaining key technical skills is essential if South Africa is to meet the challenge of building massive new infrastructure, while at the same time upgrading existing services.

The world of engineering is an ever-changing landscape because of the need to keep up with spiraling socio-economic demands. The demand for infrastructure is driven by rising populations and rapid urbanisation, and is causing a shift for all players in the sector. The NDP's ambitious infrastructure drive was intended to jump-start growth. The 2012 Medium-Term Expenditure Framework set aside R845 billion for public sector infrastructure projects, with a further R3,2 trillion for infrastructure projects under consideration up to 2020.

South Africa therefore has no choice but to develop the required skills much more aggressively in order to ensure proper maintenance and timeous upgrades of existing infrastructure, and to avoid further deterioration of essential services across the country.

We know from data provided by the Engineering Council of South Africa that we lag way behind other developing countries on the international benchmark of average population per engineer. Here at home, one engineer services an estimated 3 166 people, compared to Brazil's 227 and Malaysia's 543 people per engineer. It is painfully evident from these figures that South Africa has a severe shortage of engineering practitioners.  This is made plain from the small number of competent engineers available for ongoing projects – at a time when we are dependent on engineering services to address vital needs for local communities.

To understand the state of the engineering profession in South Africa, it is important to consider the sectors in which engineers engage. In a broad sense, engineers are at the core of two key areas of development in the country: building and maintaining infrastructure in the public sector, and contributing towards economic growth in the private sector. These are fundamentally different contexts in terms of the kind of engineering work undertaken and the conditions of employment.

In the public domain, engineers in the employ of the municipalities, for example, have always been involved in the provision of transport, communication and electricity. Civil engineers are involved in general urban development and the upgrading of infrastructure, and are usually employed by local or provincial governments. In the metals and engineering sector, industrial engineers work in a wide range of commercial enterprises, including small consulting firms, medium-sized businesses and large multinational companies. There is also a contingent of engineers who do not work in any of the traditional engineering sectors.

If South Africa is to prosper and achieve its growth ambitions, all of us – government, business and labour – must take responsibility for skills development, with by far the biggest responsibility resting on the government's shoulders. Without a clear focus on skills development, many of the government's policy plans and interventions are at risk of remaining fanciful hopes, including the aforementioned NDP, the New Growth Path, the Industrial Policy Action Plan and Operation Phakisa.

These initiatives are meant to launch the South African economy on a higher growth trajectory. However, to achieve the lofty ideals of these interventions, the country must, of necessity, place engineering, science and technology at the heart of its plans and actions.

A plethora of sustainable solutions aimed at addressing the ongoing skills shortage must take into consideration all levels of education. Our current schooling system is failing us if one considers the number of students writing Mathematics who meet the basic requirements for admission to university engineering programmes. Physical Science and English are mandatory subjects for admission to engineering courses, yet information available to us suggests that there is little career guidance available to learners about the minimum entry requirements for and the duration of higher education courses leading to professional engineering qualifications. This appears to be the case across all engineering disciplines.

The government's intended expansion of infrastructure spending over the next few years is certain to lead to further demand for engineering professionals in the public sector. However, the current skills shortage means that it will not be easy to fill future vacancies unless the pipeline is re-engineered.

The Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of Southern Africa, which is the voice of the sector in the SADC region, makes its contribution by annually offering bursaries to deserving learners studying towards engineering qualifications. We challenge other organisations and companies with far deeper pockets than we have to do the same – or much, much more than we are able to do.

Kaizer M Nyatsumba is the CEO of the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of Southern Africa.

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