Companies find it hard to fill engineering posts where between ten and fifteen years’ experience is needed, according to the South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE). On the other hand many newly graduated engineers are struggling to find employment. When one takes into account the unhealthy position that face local authorities in South Africa, namely, having few or in some instances no civil engineering professional in its employ, this is almost unbelievable.

The National Planning Commission (NPC 2011) pointed out that “transformation in the post-apartheid state required that the racial monopoly over skill be challenged and dismantled.” Their analysis of the current state of play within government on the outcome of this imperative is that “the result has been a reduction in the number of professionals available to the state, and a looming crisis in the generational reproduction of professional expertise as the ageing cohorts continue to leave the system.”  The NPC also recognises that “this skills deficit has an adverse impact not only on frontline service delivery…. but also on the ability of government to engage in long-term planning, coordination across institutions, run efficient operations, ensure adequate maintenance of infrastructure, establish organisational systems and routines, and manage personnel and industrial relations.”

Everybody knows that South Africa’s local authorities find themselves in dire straits. Ideally, engineering teams should reflect the accepted international municipal and utility ratio of six engineering professionals per 100 000 inhabitants. In South Africa’s best case scenarios (larger cities and towns), municipalities have access to three engineering professionals for each 100 000 inhabitants.  “This is not nearly enough to address our country’s service delivery needs, including water, sanitation and waste management, and those remaining need to serve a population of 50 million or more, a load which is excessive. If allowed to continue, service delivery will all but come to a standstill,” says SAICE CEO, Manglin Pillay.

The NPC observed that “many short-term responses to skills shortages do little to address long-term capacity constraints. Consultants can be brought in to design and build infrastructure, but without in-house technical expertise, provincial and local governments lack the capacity to ensure the work is done to an adequate standard or to maintain the infrastructure once the work has been completed.” This has, unfortunately, been demonstrated to be totally true.

In the SAICE publication “Numbers & Needs: Addressing imbalances in the civil engineering profession”, by Allyson Lawless (2005), she found that there was a “critical shortage of experienced civil engineering professionals, particularly mid-career civil engineers responsible for production works”. This situation has, if anything, deteriorated since then.  

In 2010 the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA) asserted that “the international benchmark of an average population per engineer shows that South Africa lags behind other developing countries. In South Africa, one engineer services 3 166, compared to Brazil’s 227 and Malaysia’s 543 per engineer. The discrepancy in the benchmark points to one thing: South Africa is severely under-engineered”.  

Are there possible short- and long-term solutions?

Dr Martin van Veelen, 2012 SAICE president and first president of the Federation of African Engineering Organisations, explains that South Africa’s accumulated wisdom is vested in an ageing engineering corps and the challenge is to transfer this wisdom to young upcoming engineers. It is therefore in this sector where experienced and knowledgeable professionals are required to plan the development of infrastructure and to oversee the sustainable management of the country’s valuable infrastructure assets.

SAICE is in the process of taking action to address the burning issues facing communities and the country at large. In support of the National Development Plan (NDP), SAICE, with its 110-year history and its contribution towards the development of South Africa, has initiated the ‘Era of Civilution’. Pillay states that South African engineers have embarked on a new struggle ? a revolution that relates to infrastructure and industrialisation, and the NDP objectives that are to be realised by 2030.

SAICE will host the Civilution Congress’ from 6 to 8 April 2014, where engineers will seek ways in which to approach the engineering and infrastructure challenges facing South Africa in a different manner. According to Pillay, “It is time for engineers and engineering to redeem their esteem, prestige and respect; to take back what rightly belongs to us ? excellence, ethical business practice, sustainability, and making a difference.”

In the short-term, what is needed to answer to the call of the NDP and in finding qualified, experienced civil engineers, as well as providing young graduates with job opportunities, is to make use of the existing ageing, or corps of vastly experienced retirees while they are still willing and able. Especially in local government situations, this could prove extremely valuable as Dr Allyson Lawless and her teams of retirees and young graduates/experiential training students have proved in various municipalities where they solved infrastructure bottlenecks and related issues while knowledge transfer happened on a first-hand basis. However, political will is required for the continuation of such an initiative.

It is for these, and many other reasons, that SAICE supports PPC Ltd’s plea for a CODESA to effect the implementation of the much-needed infrastructure development in South Africa. “The provision of civil infrastructure is the surest way to improve the social and economic wealth of a nation,” says Pillay.

Interestingly enough in March 2012 the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference Parliamentary Liaison Office (Briefing Paper 284) ‘Migration and Skills in South Africa’, stated, “When an engineering firm cannot find engineers, this limits the number of projects it can take on, and increases the cost of the ones that it undertakes. But this is not purely a private sector problem. Municipalities need engineers to maintain existing infrastructure and to expand electricity supplies and road networks and piped water. Not only is the skills shortage a problem for the economy, therefore, it also makes service delivery even more difficult.” This is just a further indication of how necessary a CODESA between government and the engineering industry has become. Possibly the CODESA could be part and parcel of the ‘Civilution Congress’?

In the longer-term South Africa will have to make huge strides in ensuring that the standard of core Maths and Science education improves drastically. The number of learners who qualify with an adequate symbol in these subjects to be accepted into universities and universities of technology is indeed small. Only about three percent of school leavers fall into this category. In addition, the number of applicants annually far exceeds the number of students who can be admitted due to facility restrictions at civil engineering departments. To put this into perspective: At some institutions, of the approximately 1 300 applications received, only about 400 had the minimum requirement in Maths and Science, and only 20% of these could be accepted as first year students because of an appropriate symbol in these subjects.

As for the throughput for the National Diploma, about 20% of the students will obtain the Diploma within the prescribed three years and about a further 50% will qualify in four years. The universities follow more or less the same pattern. Having said all this, the challenge to rectify this situation lies in an effective and appropriate education system for which SAICE and its sister organisations are lobbying.

SAICE invites all tiers of government and other stakeholders interested in finding solutions for the challenges South Africa is facing regarding the above issues, to please contact SAICE to become part of the solution-finding forum at the ‘Civilution Congress’.


  1. Engineers are continually cutting fees which means less profits and ultimately lower salaries.

    Do you blame the youth for choosing other careers?

  2. I am compelled to question some of the information presented as facts in this article, which appears to bear no relation to the reality on the ground.

    I am a retired Professional Civil Engineer who has been trying to re-enter the workplace for a few years. I have had no interest whatsoever, in spite of 25 years successful South African and overseas experience. Any approaches are ignored or rejected out-of-hand.

    Anyone else have this experience ?

    Any comments from Allyson Lawless or any of the other ‘experts’ quoted in the article ??

  3. As a member of the “ageing corp” (68) I am both willing and able to assist with skills transfer and clearing bottlenecks in my areas of competence (civil/structural)on a part-time and/or short term contract basis – but at present there is no apparent opportunity to offer such services.
    If SAICE were to arrange with NPC or other appropriate body to draw up a listing of retired/semi-retired engineers in each province who would be willing to get involved, Municipalities and State Enterprises could then contact such engineers directly – the short-term skills problem could be resolved in days with the appropriate political will.
    SAICE should start immediately with a questionnaire to all members over 65 to establish their willingness to participate and use this as the basis for negotiation with NPC/State Institutions.

  4. I am a retired civil engineer and have formed my own consulting practice in materials engineering, and joined a training company (LMS) where three Professional Engineers are trying to assist the younger generation to achieve professional status through mentoring, and to improve technical skills by presenting training courses.

    Thanks to SAICE for assisting with the promotion of our courses but I am becoming increasingly distressed at the lack of interest amongst employers, and the number of these courses that are cancelled all around South Africa. Various professional organisations, who have professional engineers as members, have been approached but are not interested in using our accredited courses to the benefit of their members. Those that do attend have given very positive feedback.

    Many organisations profess to be “Learned Societies” but do little to improve the knowledge base of members and see training as a fund raising exercise.

    If the above article is true, then help us “Greyheads” to pass on our skills before it is too late!!

  5. I have an established micro-business which intends to offer support. My proposal is for your organisation to place 1 or 2 retired professional engineers and 4 new graduate engineers in Civil and Electrical engineering in my company.

    The experienced engineers will provide on the job consultancy, managerial and technical mentorship and coaching to new graduate engineers. My company will seek contract projects in government to ensure this is a success.

    The proceeds of the contract work will be split on 50/50 to my company and the engineers. In this way I hope we can have a solution.

    This proposals was discussed telephonicall with Dr Lawless and one gentleman whos was coordinating registration of engineers in Limpopo around 2011-2012.


    Kgwadi Thobane

  6. There have been a number of initiatives to address the skills shortage/lack of civil engineers, in particular at the municial government level over the years. There has been Dr. Allyson Lawless’s SAICE projects initiative, Siyenza Manje of the DBSA and presently MISA. I have been invovled in all three. I am a relatively young 52 year-old civil engineer of colour (in comparison to the “greyhairs”) from Canada, having come back many times to SA to contribute where I possibly could. I am presently back in Canada and i do have some concerns. Born in SA but reared in Canada, I am registered as a professional engineer in Canada and would like to know if professional registration from outside the country hinders one at all? In addition, I beleive that professional engineers of colour need to speak out as well and make their voices heard at a time when the country is obviously at a serioius cross-roads at many levels.

    I have worked with Allyson Lawless and although in Canada, my thoughts are still with SA. I do also belevie sincerely, that our youg graduates must be trained, there must be transfer of skills and the older core engineers must respect and guide their younger cohorts.

    I know this is possible because I have done so and I have seen the young ones under my wing take-off.


  7. Pingback: Homepage

Leave a Reply