The search for Skilled Professionals

The search for Skilled Professionals

South Africa continues to face the dichotomy of high unemployment among the unskilled and semi-skilled, and vast vacancy rates for highly skilled positions. CLAIRE RENCKEN takes a look at the issue of skills shortages and training underinvestment, and what is being done to increase skills in the SA workforce

Executive search firm Landelahni Business Leaders Amrop SA recently carried out an Infrastructure Sector Research Survey. The survey looked at 75 companies in the electricity, water, waste, road, rail and ports sectors, as well as consulting engineers, major listed and unlisted construction companies and large suppliers to the construction industry. Collectively, the companies have surveyed over 300 000 permanent employees.

According to Landelahni CEO Sandra Burmeister: “Government delays in awarding tenders, along with the slow pace of economic growth, continue to limit the recovery of the local infrastructure and construction sector. Although this downturn may have given some respite to the skills shortage, South Africa is not training enough engineers, artisans and technicians to deliver the long-awaited R845-billion government infrastructure projects in the pipeline.”

In government, engineering skills have reached a new low, with a recent Consulting Engineers SA report estimating that there are only 1 800 engineers across government (excluding state-owned entities) and more than 1 000 vacant engineering posts. The National Treasury reports that in 2010/11 government spent only 68 percent of its total capital budget. Says Burmeister: “Ramping up government capacity to implement R3,2 trillion of mega-projects is an enormous challenge and is likely to result in an increase of public-private partnerships. We are already relying on international partners to bring expertise not available locally – as we see with the Gautrain, the building of new coal-fired power stations, nuclear energy initiatives and the drive for alternative energy.”

Skills shortages are considered a major risk of doing business in emerging economies. The battle for skilled resources is likely to intensify – both globally and locally. Total employment in the local infrastructure sector grew from 634 000 in 2001 to 1,2 million in 2007, then dropped again to 1,1 million in 2010. Research shows that 74 percent of companies are still struggling to fill engineering vacancies. The current order book of SA-listed construction companies is over R430 billion.

SA labour market supply

In 2006, South Africa produced a total of 3 222 artisans across all trades. In 2010, this number rose dramatically to 11 778. “This is testimony to what government and business can accomplish by working together towards a focused outcome,” Burmeister offers, adding that the National Programme for Artisan Development aims for another 50 000 artisans by 2015. “Based on current figures, this is a high target. We must guard against a focus on quantity of certifications over quality. The pass rate needs to go well beyond its current level of 45 percent. Moreover, the focus needs to be on four-year rather than one-year certifications. Only then will we make a significant impact in securing our artisan skills base for the future,” she cautions.

In terms of engineering graduates, of the 600 000 candidates who wrote school-leaving examinations in 2009, only 22 percent passed maths higher grade and only seven percent passed physical science higher grade. In the same year, only 28 percent of students in public higher education institutions were enrolled for programmes in science, engineering and technology.

Total graduations (degrees and diplomas) across all engineering disciplines between 1998 and 2010 numbered 70 475, at a 13,8 percent pass rate. Of this total, only 29 280 engineers graduated with degrees from universities, an average of 2 252 per year. “There was an upward trend for black and female engineering graduates, which is positive,” says Burmeister. “However, the average university pass rate is 16 percent, far below the international average of 25 percent.” These figures compare poorly with the 1,9 million engineering graduates a year in China in 2010, 763 635 in India and 10 765 in the
United Kingdom.

In the case of infrastructure-specific studies, in 2010 electrical engineering university graduates numbered 899, followed by civil engineering at 847 and mechanical engineering at 766.

Last year the Engineering Council of SA (ECSA) launched a national initiative to tackle the chronic shortages of engineering skills, in line with government’s somewhat ambitious plan to develop 30 000 engineers by 2014. “This initiative remains severely hampered by the low maths and science pass rates at school level and the low graduation rate of engineering students,” says Burmeister. “But we should guard against getting into the same situation as China, where only about 10 percent of the vast number of graduate engineers is considered globally employable. Instead, we need to focus on producing high quality engineers who can meet market demand in specific areas, and not lower standards to drive numbers that look good on paper,” she warns.

ECSA data shows that, in 2010, there was a limited pool of 14 700 professional engineers registered across all disciplines, with many of these aging out of the market. Gender also remains an issue, with less than three percent being female professional engineers.

Training

The infrastructure sector has continued to invest in skills training despite the economic downturn, and has made a significant investment particularly at executive level. The industry has increased expenditure on the training of artisans and technicians. However, bursary spend in 2011 was around only 0,2 percent of payroll.

Burmeister believes the skills challenge is exacerbated by the presence of 35 000 small and medium contractors that have little capacity to train and develop staff. “Training will continue to be carried out by large contractors, listed construction companies and parastatals.” Lean organisations are not committing resources to the required three-to-four years of on-the-job mentoring.

So, as it stands, we simply do not have the right kinds of skills to meet the specific demands of huge new infrastructure projects. It is critical that companies spend time and money on developing a leadership and graduate pipeline as well as a supply of professional and skilled workers, including artisans.

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