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SA’s engineering shortage widens

Of 511 564 enrolments in engineering disciplines from 1998 to 2010, only 14% graduated.

JOHANNESBURG – Government has ambitious, trillion-rand infrastructure plans for the next decade, but unintentionally, these are showing up an already desperate lack of skills in the country, which throws doubt on its ability to carry its plans forward.

Of local [construction] companies 74% are struggling to fill engineering roles, according to the 2012 Infrastructure Sector Research Survey, by executive search firm Landelahni Business Leaders Amrop SA.

The Medium-Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF) sets R845bn aside for public sector infrastructure projects and highlights a further R3.2trn for 43 planned infrastructure projects under consideration to 2020. But the reality is SA is not producing enough engineers, artisans and technicians to bring about these projects.

Of 511 564 enrolments in engineering disciplines from 1998 to 2010, only 70 475 graduated. Of these, 29 280 of the 183 529 enrolled in university engineering disciplines graduated – 16% compared with the international average of 25%. See figure 1. 

Figure 1

These figures compare with 1.9m engineering graduates a year in China in 2010, 763 635 in India, and 10 765 in the UK.

Quoting a 2005 study, the Engineering Council of SA (Ecsa) reports that SA has one engineer per 3 166 of the population, well behind Brazil (227), the UK (311), Australia (455) and Chile (681), although ahead of African countries like Tanzania (5 930) and Zimbabwe (6 373). There were only 11 778 artisans (up from 3 222 in 2006) and 14 700 professional engineers in 2010 (according to Ecsa).

Effective skills drive?

Government and Ecsa are working to address the chronic shortages through progammes like the National Programme for Artisan Development, which aims for an additional 50 000 artisans by 2015 and Ecsa’s national initiative plan which is in line with government’s plan to develop 30 000 engineers by 2014.

However, Landelahni CEO Sandra Burmeister believes Ecsa’s initiative is severely hampered by the low school maths/science pass rates and the low graduation rate of engineering students.

Of the 600 000 candidates who wrote school-leaving examinations in 2009, only 22% passed maths higher grade and only 7% passed physical science higher grade. In the same year, of the 837 779 students in public higher education institutions, only 28% were enrolled for programmes in science, engineering and technology.

And here’s the crux: if building engineering skills is so obviously crucial, why has government allocated only R298m to engineering in [tertiary institutions combined] for 2012/13, versus R316m for engineering in universities and R538m towards universities of technology in 2010/11?

Game plan

To address these problems Burmeister reckons our educational systems must be aligned “to meet these [infrastructure] requirements.

“Only in this way can we ensure that we have skills to support not just the build, but the maintenance and upgrade of infrastructure now and in the future,” she says.

See Figure 2, which shows how SA rates in a World Economic Forum Survey rating how education systems met the needs of a competitive economy in 22 countries.

Figure 2

However, she warns against throwing money at training to increase quantity at the expense of quality. “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.”

Some of the other suggestions for filling the talent pipeline from the survey:

  • Increase bursary spend in core scarce skills areas of business.
  • Increase graduate hiring and training programmes.
  • Have cross-functional project teams and offshore assignments for exposure and to accelerate skills development.
  • Extending retirement dates, or calling back early retirees.
  • Government should take heed of the global resourcing model – companies are centralising their specialist delivery teams and move them between projects, rather than hiring multiple teams on different projects.
  • Practices across government which should cease: early retirement for white professionals, hiring on any criteria other than competence, hiring on three-year contracts at the expense of continuity, especially in infrastructure.
  • Practices that should be implemented: Pay for performance (including incentives and promotions); accountability of leadership (which includes the ability to hire & fire).


This information was gathered in the 2012 Infrastructure Sector Research Survey, which researched 75 companies with just over 300 000 permanent employees across infrastructure sectors, consulting engineers, major construction companies and their suppliers, over eight months.


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