The South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE) receives requests from civil engineering professionals for assistance in finding jobs on a regular basis – this in a country where civil engineering is a priority scarce skill.
South African engineers are experiencing unemployment. Despite living in South Africa where “job creation” and “unemployment” appear in everyday conversation, it is uncommon to hear the words “engineer” and “unemployment” in the same sentence.
Some companies with excellent management and administrative skills had the foresight or opportunity to plan for lean times, and are able to sustain their people despite the lack of work. How long they will be able to maintain this situation is uncertain. Small and medium-sized businesses, however, have insufficient economic depth to apply the same liberalities as their larger and more established counterparts.
For lack of sustainable project work, firms are forced to release engineers back into the market. Some are exploring international pastures and others are reluctantly looking into alternative work options. The heads of civil engineering departments from four of the leading universities of technology in the country are very concerned that their students are unable to secure sustainable work for in-service training, as well as post-graduation employment.
What is confusing is the fact that there are unemployed engineers while it is clear that there is a genuine need for engineering capacity to fulfil the needs expressed in the National Development Plan, Minister Pravin Gordhan’s interim budget speech and the other plans and announcements on the national demands of social and economic development. And, then there is inadequate project roll-out from the biggest civil engineering client, government, for the realisation of their development goals. Budget to the tune of R800 billion for the projects that would make this possible, has been announced repeatedly for the past two years, even from the highest points of administration in the country, but that was it!
Manglin Pillay, CEO of SAICE, says “It appears the weakness is a lack of knowledge on how to identify projects and how to spend the allocated money. This is evident in the lack of structures, processes and systems in government to manage infrastructure spend. Then there is the cauldron of unsuitably qualified individuals, ineffectually occupying technical engineering posts, nervously managing engineering projects, and second-guessing the allocation of funds.“ In his presidential address in February this year Dr Martin van Veelen, the SAICE president, said, “In the Department of Water Affairs, where bulk water infrastructure planning occurs, only seven out of a senior management structure of 48 people are engineers.” There should be concerns if there is a possibility that technical expertise or solution-finding has to bow to non-technical influences.
It is acknowledged that the shortage of civil engineering professionals is a global phenomenon and that engineers with expertise will work across the globe to apply their knowledge. However, we should realise that South Africa, compared to other countries, lack engineering professionals. In China they have one qualified engineer for every 130 people, the US one for 389, the UK one for 311 people, Germany one for 217 and South Africa one for 3 166 people.
It is clear that South Africa needs civil engineering professionals. If one takes the current student numbers in civil engineering it is obvious that not too many more will qualify within ten years. The current first-years will, in the shortest time possible, only qualify within four to five years – without then being ‘experienced’. This while there is a big gap in the industry for civil engineering professionals with ten years or more experience.
South Africa’s civil engineering professionals have proved that they can rise to a challenge. The 2010 FIFA World Cup stadiums, roads and other infrastructure projects come to mind. Within two years they did the almost impossible. But there was political will behind the decisions of what needed to be done. Should government take that approach again, providing adequate procurement processes, capable officials to deal with tenders, etc., it is distinctly possible for the current civil engineering professionals to make it work. But then projects need to be rolled out sooner rather than later to avoid South Africa losing more valuable engineers, who, by the way, is absolutely sought-after in the world.
If this was possible for a sporting event, why can’t South Africa do the same for reaching South Africa’s development goals (and the Millennium Development Goals), including healthcare, education, water and sanitation, housing and electricity for alleviating poverty promised during a number of election campaigns. The lack of service delivery is now resulting in violent demonstrations, which terrify South Africans and foreign investors alike.
The solution to overcome the current infrastructure development backlog is for national government to apply the same approach adopted for the World Cup. The current challenges are certainly not due to insufficient funding or deficient engineering resources. It is a matter of political will and the re-capacitating of the technical echelons within all three government structures.
At a recent conference, “The Engineering Skills Summit”, Allyson Lawless, past president of SAICE and director of the SAICE Section 21 Company, gave an overview of the current situation, including the skills shortage. On developing skills and filling posts, she explained that there should be long-term (2012 to 2022), medium-term (2012 to 2017) and short-term (2012 t0 2014) interventions. She proposed, “Harness the private sector, retired engineers, overseas capacity, etc. as we did in the case of the Soccer World Cup to get the major projects off the ground, and set training conditions to all projects to ensure current graduates are adequately trained. Harness retired engineers in public sector structures to get tender documents drawn up and awarded and set up skills planning and training programmes.”
Ageing, pale males
Dr Van Veelen pointed out, “South Africa is blessed with a highly competent and experienced corps of engineering practitioners. However, the centre of gravity of the accumulated wisdom lies in an ageing, predominantly white and male group of professionals. This is certainly not politically correct, but it is a fact. The country cannot afford to disregard this boon if the objectives of the NDP are to be achieved. These people are professionals who are willing and able to make a contribution.”
Together we can make it work!