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Apr 20, 2012

Fake engineers making a mockery of ECSA’s mission statement

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I have a stethoscope but that does not make me a doctor. I probably could create a good impression of being a doctor – tap here, look into the ears, go “Mmmmm” and scrawl out a prescription. Not too difficult. For gout, prescribe voltaren and puricos, painkillers for sprains and bandage up the sprain, teramycin for malaria and tick-bite fever . . . Where it would fall apart is when I have a patient in a sudden serious condition – massive bleeding, coma and the like. My incompetence would show and I would be caught out.

In the electrical engineering profession, it is very similar. There are many people out there who claim to be engineers. Heck, they even have test meters and sound-level meters and computers and stuff to prove it. The fact is, like the fake doctor, they can get away with it most of the time. The problem comes when there is a real electrical problem they do not know how to deal with. But here is the crucial difference between the fake doctor and the fake engineer – the fake engineer does not get caught out. When the motor burns out because the protection setting was wrong or the transformer fails because the Buchholz protection is not connected or the cable to the power factor correction melts because the ‘engineer’ did not allow for the correct cable size, he or she turns to the client and, in effect, says, well, stuff fails, what can you do?

The client does not know any better and, instead of booting the engineer off the site, pays an additional fee to fix the broken- down equipment and for the extra time the engineer will require to do this. I know this because I have seen it. I was once on a site where the so-called engineer (employed by a contractor) allowed the contractor to push a fish tape through the busbar compartment of a switchboard, which resulted in an explosion and loss of supply to the whole factory – fortunately, without loss of life.

I told the fake engineer to take his staff off the site and I was drafting a letter to the Department of Labour when I was called to a meeting – with the client and the fake engineer and the contractor. The fake engineer said I was overreacting. The client seemed to agree. I asked the fake engineer if he actually had the qualifica- tions he pretended to have because no qualified engineer could be so stupid as to allow what had happened.

Incredibly, the client said that he was convinced it was all an accident (he implied I was a bit too ‘old school’) and the whole lot went on with the contract. This really happened. Fortunately, neither I nor the client have spoken since, for which I am grateful.

There ought to be a body which stops this sort of thing from happening. The good news is that there is such a body. It is called the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA). I have just paid my ECSA dues of about R1 200 a year and, by my count, I have been paying dues for 28 years.

The mission statement of ECSA says: “Our mission is to create the circum- stances in which society is confident that the engineering profession in South Africa is able to carry out the functions necessary for the socioeconomic growth in the country.”

And I can tell you that, for the last 28 years, ECSA has never been behind any legisla- tion which makes it illegal to call yourself an electrical engineer, a civil engineer, a mechanical engineer, and so on. Further ECSA has never been behind any legislation which makes it illegal for a person who is not an electrical engineer to design anything (some civil construction design is covered).

So the fake engineer can just lie about qualifications without breaking any law. Now I’ve been harping on this for about 20 years and nothing happens. But, until ECSA does something, the statement that its mission is to “create circumstances in which society is confident that the engineer- ing profession in South Africa is able to carry out the functions necessary” makes me wonder what those circumstances will be, actually.

Edited by: Martin Zhuwakinyu
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