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South Africa’s engineering capacity has dwindled at a shocking rate over the last decade, with the South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE) identifying this critical shortage of skills as one of the key drivers behind the country’s collapsing infrastructure.
SAICE published its latest Infrastructure Report Card (IRC) this past week, identifying key issues with South Africa’s public infrastructure. Overall, the group found that vital infrastructure segments were deteriorating quite rapidly, and without government intervention, many are at risk of collapsing – if they hadn’t collapsed already.
According to the group, South Africa – especially in public services – faces a debilitating shortage of engineering skills, adding that it is rare to find a municipality that has a full complement of qualified and experienced personnel.
Since 2005, SAICE has tracked the profile of engineering expertise in public service. While transformation trends are incredibly promising – with an influx of black and female technologists and technicians over the last 20 years – the country has lost a shocking number of engineers in the civil sector.
Specifically, the transformation achievement was accomplished by displacing many older, white engineers, SAICE said, which has completely disrupted the profile and skillsets that are required and available for effective service delivery in the country.
Further to this, the displacement of older white engineers also deprived new entrants and candidate engineers of essential mentorship, it said.
This situation is something that power utility Eskom has admitted in recent years, where the group attributed much of its current power supply issues to a lack of necessary skills and technical capabilities needed to keep power stations operating.
While it is only one part of the problem facing Eskom, it is significant enough that the group recently launched a crowdsourcing platform specifically directed at targeting these lost skills and beckoning them back into the fold to assist with knowledge transfer and mentorship.
According to SAICE, this problem is pronounced and prevalent across the public sector, especially in municipalities.
“Operation and maintenance activities are complex and require a cadre of skilled technical professionals if we are to avoid compromising the lifespan of assets through neglect,” SAICE said.
“Most municipalities are desperately understaffed in these crucial positions or staffed by people who do not have the required training or experience. At the level of leadership, engineering professionals are under-represented in the boards of SOCs and senior management in all spheres of government.”
The group said that it is also not enough to simply replace lost technical skills with other, unrelated technical skills.
“Problem-solving skills and depth of knowledge differ from engineers to technologists to technicians, and all infrastructure departments require the correct balance of all three of these professional categories to function well.
“In reality, the proportions of those employed in local government are alarmingly skewed towards the narrower-skilled technicians. As a result, most departments – and especially municipalities – do not have satisfactory technical capacity even when they have increased the technical headcount,” it said.
While it is encouraging that the South African government is moving to professionalize the public service and focus on skills over political leanings, SAICE said that the country faces an uphill battle to correct the situation as many engineers and needed skills have already left.
“It is important to note that developed economies are targeting infrastructure development as a catalyst for growth in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. These countries supplement their technical human resources for this surge, and South Africans, being generally well trained and hardworking, become attractive targets for recruitment,” it said.
SAICE said that the challenge before the government is significant and requires multi-level approaches. But even while the task is daunting, it noted that there is hope.
Specifically, the group said that South Africa has a lot of leaders, managers, professionals and both skilled and unskilled workers who are persevering in their tasks to make things better in the country.
“A significant number of institutions continue to perform well and are improving in each of the sectors (we) examined,” it said.
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