Engineered Ingenuity

Developing an engineering sector requires funding

Graham Pirie
One of the key issues facing the country is the shortage of skills in most of our technical disciplines. Engineering is no exception, with several key challenges lying ahead.

“There is no shortage of experienced professional consulting engineering skills currently, given the government’s current lack of spend on infrastructure projects,” says Graham Pirie, chief executive officer of Consulting Engineers South Africa (CESA).

He explains that according to CESA’s biannual Economic and Capacity Survey, which was released in April 2012, the capacity utilisation of firms within the CESA membership stable has increased from 80% in the first six months of 2011 to 90% in the last six months of 2011.

“All government’s planning needs to be converted into actual projects, and the industry is waiting in anticipation for its promised R844-billion spend on infrastructure in the next three years,” says Pirie.

A paper presented by the Construction Industry Development Board with the Department of Public Works, which commissioned a project to quantify the skills currently available in the construction industry, states that formal employment in the construction sector decreased progressively in the 1990s until the low in 2001 when it had lost about 200 000 jobs. 

“An increase in infrastructure investment since 2003 has seen a steady increase in the number of jobs created and the accompanying challenge to secure requisite skills. Historically, as evidenced by graduation rates in construction and engineering, skills development has always lagged behind increases in construction spend,” says Marna Thompson, the branch manager of Network Engineering, a division of Network Recruitment.

While Pirie claims there is no shortage of young engineers and technicians, he defines the problem as the shortage of specialist and experienced engineering skills, in the 35- to 55-year-old age category. “This will continue to increase as more of these experienced engineers retire from the industry.” Thompson agrees: “There are extremely qualified and experienced retired engineers who need to be pulled back into the market to assist in mentoring and training younger, less experienced engineers. There is a wealth of knowledge that may be lost if we do not tap into it.”

Says Dionne Kerr, the executive director of Siyakha Consulting: “Industries need to collaborate to increase the pool of skills and how those skills are developed in South Africa. Retired engineers, returning expats, engineers in a ‘down’ cycle, all have time and skill on their hands which we need to adequately work together to capture into Centres of Excellence that will ultimately support the skills agenda. 

Of particular concern to the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of South Africa (SEIFSA) is the shortage of artisans in key scarce skill trades such as boilermakers, electricians, fitters and turners and millwrights, to name a few. “Artisans form the backbone of our industry, and a shortage of them poses severe challenges to our members,” says Janet Lopes, SEIFSA’s skills development executive.

Allison Cooper
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Issue 58