1)  The pace of government infrastructure delivery.  Has it failed to live up to expectations in 2012? How so?

It hasn’t started yet, has it? No, it has definitely not lived up to expectations. The commitment was made at the top, from the president, the Minister of Economic Development, the Finance Minister and other infrastructure Ministers – but there seems to be a hesitancy about determining the details on just how to spend it. It’s rather a lot of money and there is an understandable desire to ensure that it is well spent. There is also a paralysing lack of professional capacity, particularly at all tiers of government to roll out the tenders. This challenge is at its most detrimental at the local municipalities where infrastructure engineering service delivery meets the community. Budgets are underspent, the industry appears to be tainted with political inference and corruption, there is limited

There is a dire lack of systems, processes and effective organograms – this is one of the reasons why the roll out of engineering projects has been so ineffective and where it has happened, it is usually associate with corruption and very often perceived corruption. The entire engineering project cycle – planning, identification of projects, sourcing of funds, issuing of tenders, adjudication of tenders, project management and supervision, and operation and maintenance, has taken a spurious characteristics.

We need appropriately qualified technical capacity at all levels of government. Engineers – we need civil engineers to run the show – dynamic civil engineers who are trained to be problem solvers, who understand process thinking, familiar with long term planning, infrastructure engineering project cycle and what it takes to accomplish it. We need civil engineers, who have graduated with a 4-year degree, that has work experience and is registered with the Engineering Council of South Africa as a Professional Engineer back into the government system – we the city engineer and town engineer back in place – with full authority to appoint a technical engineering team to carry out the work, and without the interference of politicians.

Because of this lack of expertise and structures, nothing is happening on the ground and general engineering forms are facing very lean times.

This also affects small and medium sized infrastructure businesses – under such circumstances engineering firms that want to stay afloat cannot afford to run ahead hiring people. The government sector, which needs the professional capacity the most, is also not hiring people to fill the yawning gaps.

In the face of the high unemployment rates in South Africa, there is irony in this situation. The same applies to the call of the National Growth Path driven by the Minister of Economic Development, which seeks to create 5 million jobs.

2)      What is the state of the civil engineering sector at the moment? Has it had a tough year? How so? Has it been affected by spin-offs of the labour unrest?

At the moment the industry looks very positive for the future – government is in the process of signing MoUs with appropriate capacity building organisations, with the view to enhace capacity building in the right places. These are noises being made at the highest levels of the country’s administration, including the state president himself. The in place NDP, PICC and NGP, and the MoIs – there is also pressure from the Minister of Finance for officials to “…get their house in order.” And we believe that this will happen, over time. We obviously would like to see this happen sooner rather than later.

At present, it there is much more than can be done to improve the situation. From our national branch visits, most of our engineers are complaining of a growing shortage of work this year and very poor order books for next year. Those who have financial depth are venturing out into Africa which is indeed a challenging market. The few registered engineers that are employed at government, are being further shredded off. It is of great concern that in some local municipalities, there are no registered professional engineers in the system. How does one provide engineering infrastructure – roads, potable water, community buildings, electricity, and so on, to a community, without an engineer.

The labour unrest has undoubtedly directly hit prospects in the engineering sector. A large consulting firm that I know of that specialises in the mining sector are facing the prospect of near empty order books for next year, while there are others that are snowed under with work, particularly from across boarder African markets. That comes on top of the prolonged world economic depression and the ever-present threat of sliding into the dreaded double dip. This is hitting our resource exports very hard, thereby cutting chunks off our already depressed GDP. All this is exacerbated by the infrastructure bottlenecks that have slashed our exports relative to our better developed competitors. This, of course accentuates the urgency to get our infrastructure in place, but it also makes it more difficult to fund it without running up too much debt and catching the same disease afflicting Europe and the US. Furthermore, the strikes recently and the violence associated with it, has been publicised internationally, which has reduced confidence for international investment in South Africa – this situation will worsen if we do not intervene with resolutions to the workers’ plights, together with a PR exercise to reinstall confidence in a favourable and fertile market that South Africa really is.

The situation is however, a fine balancing act, which is being upset by the economic downgrading attributable to the irresponsible mining, transport and agricultural unrest. If we are not careful it could slide into a downward spiral, and we need to intervene quite urgently.

3) The skills shortage. Are SA engineers are out of work or battling to find employment and continuing to leave to work in places like Dubai? How is this possible given thousands of vacant public sector posts and the fact that you would be expecting construction firms and government itself to be gearing up for the big infrastructure programme that is set to be sustained over the next decade?

I am aware of several of our engineers who are doing just that. While engineering as a career allows for local, national and international manoeuvrability, we need our engineers to be fully engaged in South Africa – service delivery is a priority and funding is being announced to the tune of R3.2 trillion over the next 15 years, we need capacity in the right places in South Africa. There is a need for engineers in South Africa right now.

It is easy to understand the shortage of jobs in the private sector, given the poor spending conditions and the lack of any evidence of the promised infrastructure spend. It would be suicidal to incur massive debt to gear up ahead of a boom that is taking so long to materialise. Engineers are a canny lot, they will first need to see an outflow of real contracts. And even then they would first have to win some of them. In this respect they still have a lot of internal slack that they can take up. The danger is that is the infrastructure spend is delayed too long that they might have to start retrenchments, which would further delay implementation. Engineers’ skills are highly portable – when we release engineers in the local market, they tend to find other havens to practice their trade – more often where they feel wanted and welcome.

The key to unlocking the infrastructure development lies in capacitating the Government departments, Local Authorities, and state owned enterprises. In view of this it is strange that so little is being done to speedily ramp up technical and managerial capacity. Obviously this needs adequate budgetary support. But there is more to it than that. Experienced engineers are loath to work for government departments because the working environments have become increasingly unfriendly. Career paths are blocked by inappropriately skilled managers and directors and Human Resource Departments are ill informed of the needs of technical expertise and the urgency  have attained to the unfortunate epitaph of “Inhuman” Resources Departments. Even at the lower end of the spectrum young graduates leave in droves because they lack mentors to guide their training and can earn twice as much in the private sector. The education pipeline that produces them is also chocked by abysmal maths an science education at the secondary school level.

Fixing this requires a multi-pronged approach. In the immediate short-term all tiers of government need to offer better terms to their existing experienced professional staff to stop further haemorrhaging. This needs to be supplemented by the ”re-treading” of retired engineers, who will also need attractive packages to lure them out of the comfort of retirement back into organisations that are presently not fun places to work. But this will not be enough. Getting out the necessary tenders will also require the services of experienced professionals seconded from the private sector. Now would be an opportune time to do so, since they are so badly needed and private engineering forms are in the doldrums. Many would jump at the opportunity to second expensive personnel for a limited period of time, rather than face the prospect of increasing financial loss and even retrenchment. Political and managerial resolve is required to make the necessary funds available (now, not next year) and actively oversee the recruitment and make the necessary adjustments to salary scales.

At the same time it is essential to re-invent government organisations to transform them into places where professional engineers would like to work and develop their careers. This is easier said than done as it will require unblocking career paths and communication lines (which is a nice way of saying retrench or demote ineffective managers).

There is an urgent need for technocrats to have sufficient power and that politicians do not interfere with the work of the technocrats and engineering service delivery managers. Politicians have too much liberty to command the procurement and tendering systems, identification of projects, management of funds – leave the engineers and other technocrats alone to get on with the work of infrastructure service delivery and operation and maintenance. This includes having sufficient power to source the correct staff.

We need to ensure that the educational system is functioning effectively; this is a longer term trudge that needs to start with the recruitment and training of suitably qualified teachers, providing them with good career paths and remunerating them adequately. Good career guidance is also required, especially at the end of grade 9 when so many learners are mislead into taking maths literacy, only to find after matriculating successfully that they are unqualified to gain entry into a wide range of university faculties, including engineering. Then there is the capacitation of tertiary education. While this will take a long time to get right, it is essential to start now to ensure a steady upsurge in new skills, innovation and burgeoning opportunities for our people.

1 Comment

  1. Dear Mr Pillay,

    I quite enjoy your outspoken comment on the current affairs in civil engineering, sometimes even with a touch of activism!

    I would like to draw you attention to an article that appeared in the ICE International edition of 11.2012, being a paper by HRH Prince Charles, “Working in harmony with nature: the key to sustainability”. In my view this paper presents an excellent overview of the issues that we as civil engineers need to face and recognise – namely that the current approach to development, be it in the UK, SA or anywhere on earth, is not sustainable. I appreciate his point about impact on people and also the importance of aesthetic. Certainly, the quest of “directing” nature has a ring of arrogance to it.
    Please enjoy the read – it is well worth the while.
    Best wishes,

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