The improvement in the South African civil engineering sector will remain constrained in the near future, says South African Federation of Civil Engineering Contractors (Safcec) executive director Neville Gurry.
Keen tender prices, delays in the awarding of tenders, late payments and the underspending of capital budgets by government departments are impacting on companies’ cash flows.
He welcomes government’s focus on infrastructure development, but says that, although there are sufficient civil engineering skills to meet the current demand, there could be a skills shortage when more work becomes available.
“There is ongoing training at tertiary and company level and industry is actively involved in assisting institutions in improving curricula for civil engineering students.
“Should more work become available, we will see an increased demand for skilled civil engineers by employers, consultants and contractors. Given the size of government’s infrastructure development plans, a shortage of skills is, however, likely in the future, as several skilled civil engineers are reaching retirement age and some engineers have left the country,” says Gurry.
To increase the number of skilled civil engineers in South Africa, he says, learners must be encouraged to study engineering.
He adds that the importance of maths and science must be reinforced, together with the continuous improvement of the curricula to align what is taught with what is expected of students during the required workplace experience.
“Our education system currently focuses more on the quantity of graduates than on the quality of education. There is also a lack of experienced lecturers to provide training. Owing to the country’s high unemployment rate, emphasis is placed on training at further education and training colleges.
“Safcec is actively involved in the quality of training provided at the colleges to ensure graduates come out equipped to operate in the industry,” states Gurry.
However, the current cyclical nature of civil engineering work makes it difficult for companies to offer graduates an opportunity to gain practical experience and become skilled in the field for which they have received theoretical training.
Additionally, the older generation of civil engineers has the necessary skills, but most are reaching retirement age.
Gurry says more emphasis needs to be placed on pairing young graduates with experienced engineers to transfer skills to the new generation of engineers. He further suggests that some retired engineers be brought back to the industry as mentors.
“Practical experience is key to acquiring skills and workplaces must be made avail- able to provide this,” Gurry asserts.
Meanwhile, he believes the recently launched National Infrastructure Develop- ment Plan holds great promise as a way to grow and transform the industry, but says government must establish a partnership with businesses to streamline the flow of projects and jointly implement sustainable opportunities to employ people in the construction industry, which is one of the largest employers of labour in the country.