Consulting our engineers

Dr Willem Sprong, Technical Executive at GIBB
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It’s a fact: South Africa is severely under-engineered. The latest Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA) results show that South Africa only has a total of 15 000 engineers and has one engineer who services approximately 2 666 people – whereas internationally, one engineer services 40 people.

While these results show the shortage of qualified engineers in South Africa, there is also a diminishing number of draughtspersons and artisans, both of which are specialist skills in their own right.

This is a topic Dr Willem Sprong, Technical Executive at GIBB, a leading consulting engineering firm, directed at this year’s African Utility Week conference and exhibition in Cape Town, the largest gathering of its kind in the continent.

Sprong announced at the conference that 48% of engineers work in Gauteng, while areas such as KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape have only 10 and 4% of engineers. These figures show a vast skills shortage in other areas.

Of great concern is the percentage of craftsmen compared to engineers, as 40% of engineers work as consultants – ideally this percentage should be around 15% and the rest should be working for the client.

According to him, the biggest contributor to this problem is that the governmental institutions such as municipalities and departments such as the Department of Public Works no longer attract young graduates or experienced engineers to work for them in these areas. He says youngsters tend to go directly to consulting and construction companies, of which most are seated in Gauteng, hence the uneven distribution.

We need competent and experienced engineers to initiate and manage projects. Graduates must go through that practical school before joining consulting companies. Furthermore, our public services sectors need to become attractive career options for the engineers if we want to fix the problem.

The lack of skilled and experienced employees in the industry is brought to the fore in the Transnet Multi-Product Pipeline Project, which is a multi‑product pipeline to be built to transport refined products from Durban to Johannesburg.

More than 400 specialist welders were sourced for this project – only four were from South Africa. This clearly shows a shortage of skills in South Africa, which can be addressed by developing and retaining staff.

“I strongly believe that public institutions must play a major role in the development of these skills. We must stop outsourcing training and get the old training colleges and schools back in place.

This will ensure a high quality of training and provide immediate work options for the young qualified trainee, which will attract more people to become artisans in these skills.”

Sprong adds that by 2030, the African economy will be larger than India and China, and it is vital to train and develop people now to accommodate this economic growth.
“We have the people and opportunities at our doorstep. It is vital for any firm to develop skilled engineers through mentorship programmes to ensure staff retention.

“At GIBB, we have started a new programme called Engineers Without Borders. The programme aims to develop young engineers by assisting them with community work experience such as water, waste management and electricity,” he continued.

Sprong says young engineers should also work for the client – such as parastatals, national and local government – after they graduate to gain work experience and knowledge instead of joining consultants, which will help steer them in the right direction.

“The advantages of this for young people is that they gain experience in their fields, as well as areas such as contract and project management. These organisations also normally have bigger training budgets and are not constrained by the time their employees spent on training as much.”
Achiever caught up with Dr Sprong shortly after the conference.

Whose responsibility is it to increase skills development in your sector?
It is every engineer who values the sustainability of the industry’s responsibility.

Are private companies doing enough training and skills development?
Their training and development is sometimes focused on internal processes to reduce their own risk for doing business. They need to ensure the client’s expectations can be met and then shift this focus to the client requirements.

What would you say are the main challenges when it comes to skills development in SA?
The main challenge, according to me, is the motivation to do it. Experienced engineers sometimes feel that they do not have the time or the energy to do it, while the youngster sits back and waits for something to happen. We also need to ensure undergraduate programmes are up to standard.

What is our greatest achievement in the skills training sector since the advent of democracy?
Our biggest achievement is that we managed to deal with the shortage. Now we need to realise that there is a retirement age and that we need to be prepared for the day when our senior engineers get there.

Is enough done in SA on secondary education level to promote your industry and the related occupations?
I fear that standards are being dropped to achieve numbers. Scholars must realise that it takes hard work to achieve your goals and that you do not have to become an engineer to be successful. We have many more opportunities in the sector apart from becoming an engineer. Standards should not be lowered to get more graduates, but instead it should focus on every individual’s talents and ability.

Back in the day, most people in labour-related fields learnt their trades as apprentices – the system produced craftspeople. Why does it seem so difficult to incorporate it today?
Government must rethink its spending policies. Why give money away on social grants to somebody who can earn that money on a public works project?

‘Innovation in our thinking is the only way we can stay sustainable’ was your main message at African Utility Week. Can you expand on this?
We need to find new ways to train our new entrants in the market. We cannot change the education system overnight, but we can make use of our incredible minds to find innovative ways to develop these skills. And part of it will be to convince government that the current systems aren’t working as well as we thought they would. We need to change the way we think. We have technology on our side and must make use of it. Children must be taught that every person is different and that not all of us need to go to a university to achieve success.

Can you give some examples of projects currently run in SA to address the skills shortage?
Transnet has a strong focus on supplier development and forces its suppliers to develop the skills in the market. The Extended Public Works Programme implemented by all governmental institutions also contributes to this.

What is your vision for this industry?
Everybody is not equal! We have different people with different talents. We need to apply our minds and find the right career for the right person. I have a vision where public institutions start their own in-house training programmes again, where they have apprentice programmes, where you know you will have a job once you finish your training.

Which other countries can we look at for solutions to our problems, and why?
China stopped using their tax money on social grants and employed the people who used to get that money, on public works projects.


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