Registration as a professional engineer with the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA) has safety, competitiveness, recruitment and service delivery benefits for the country, yet it is fraught with challenges.
ECSA president Chris Campbell says society relies on seasoned professionals to make planning, design and financial decisions and, if such decisions are made without input from competent engineers, the health and safety of workers and the public is compromised and the product’s effectiveness is affected.
The objective of professional registration is to give the public confidence in the competence of registered persons, says ECSA special consultant Professor Hu Hanrahan. ECSA registration endorses the engineer and also makes the recruitment process easier for employers, as they do not have to test for competence, adds Campbell.
To be eligible for registration, candidates must graduate from a university, or a university of technology with a degree or diploma before entering the candidacy stage, where they must complete a period of at least three years’ work in industry, acquiring appropriate experience. However, potential candidates are often not exposed to a broad enough range of engineering experience to be adequately competent and confident enough to register, says Campbell.
Ecsa faces several challenges in encouraging engineers to register, as well as in the limited number of candidates at the different points in the registration process. ECSA CEO Dr Oswald Franks says, as opposed to taking three years to acquire the necessary experience between graduating and applying, many candidates take between 7 and 15 years, which means they would be 30 years old, or older, before being able to register, which is suboptimal.
Franks reveals that, in late June, there were 34 680 engineering professionals registered with ECSA.
A contributing factor to the country’s lack of engineers and registration applicants is that the schooling system is producing too few matriculants with good symbols in mathematics, science and English, says Franks. Exacerbating this challenge is the competition between the engineering, medical, financial and other professions for students in this limited pool.
In 2008, South African universities collectively produced just under 8 000 graduates, having taken ten years to double from 4 000 graduates. Government is now calling for the number of graduates to increase to 15 000 by 2014, he says
University of Pretoria Department of Chemical Engineering professor and ECSA VP Thoko Majozi adds the Minister of Education has called for 4 500 Master of Engineering graduates by 2014. Currently, only 1 200 PhD graduates are produced across the board, with only 90 in engineering. Further, there are currently about 50 000 students enrolled in some form of engineering.
The intake and number of graduates from tertiary education need to be drastically improved. Franks says universities are generally at almost full capacity and cannot take on additional students. To increase the number of graduates, new institutions would need to be established, or the effi- ciency and success of higher education systems improved – he believes the latter is a better option.
In 2007, researchers at the University of Cape Town found that only 54% of gradu- ates enrolled in a four-year BSc engineering programme, typically offered at South African universities, graduate within five years and, after five years, just under 20% are still registered. Hence, at least 25% of the students that entered the course five years prior drop out by the fifth year of study.
The situation in universities of technology is worse, with 17% of students graduating from a three-year programme after five years and more than 50% of students dropping out after five years without having qualified. The national diploma course includes a two-year academic programme and one year in industry. Franks says the latter is sometimes a contributory factor to the poor statistics, as some students, having met their academic requirements, have difficulty finding employment in industry.
In the BSc course, the study found that white students succeed at a rate of 64% within five years and black students at 32%. In the national diploma, 28% of white students succeed and 16% of the remaining designated groups. ECSA believes this research is indicative of an underperforming public school system that does not prepare students adequately for success in higher education.
Graduates are also taking longer to acquire the necessary workplace experience because of inadequate training owing to a lack of mentors, says Campbell. Candidates also need to be allowed to rotate into different functions in a company. Many organisations cannot offer a full suite of the necessary experience, so candidates are forced to change jobs to gain experience. He says ECSA needs to find a way to facilitate candidates being seconded from company to company to get the necessary experience.
Hanrahan says, previously, there was a culture and strong practice of mentoring and transfer of verbal information from mentors to mentees, which needs to be continued through another communication channel. Hence, ECSA is working on more comprehensive guides for training and mentoring, which capture as much information as possible that would previously have been passed from mentor to mentee.
ECSA is also planning on hosting an engineering summit in September, with a key theme dealing with the challenges it faces in training its candidates for regis- tration.
The ‘Global Competitiveness Report 2010–2011’, released by the World Economic Forum, ranks South Africa at 75 out of 189 countries in terms of higher education and training, and at 137 in terms of the quality of its mathematics and science education. Majozi says this has implications for the future competitive edge of the country and it requires action. The country was ranked at 54 on the global competitiveness index.
Franks believes South Africa’s ratings in the report have declined in the past three to four years as a direct consequence of its lack of engineering skills. He says service delivery inefficiencies and protests partly arise because there are young, newly graduated and inexperienced engineers in municipalities without guidance or mentoring and, as result, service delivery is delayed or postponed. Hence, the country’s declining competitiveness, service delivery challenges and the lack of engineering skills are linked.
“To retain engineers in the industry and not lose them to industries such as service providers, construction and the financial sector, they must be appropriately remunerated, capacity at service delivery levels needs to be rebuilt, technical personnel must be appropriately qualified and trained and there needs to be succession planning,” concludes Campbell.