“South Africa needs to make good use of civil engineers within the next five to ten years to turn around the skills decline and transfer expertise, as most of the country’s experienced engineers are already in their late fifties or older. It is important that their expertise be transferred to the younger generation while we still have the opportunity,” says civil engineer and writer Allyson Lawless.
Lawless explains in her newly released book, Numbers & Needs in Local Government, that South Africa’s economy and the quality of life of its citizens depend on the supply and efficient management of infrastructure, and that the bulk of the infrastructure identified in the Millennium Development Goals is in the domain of local government.
Lawless says, “Even though the skills growth issues the country is facing are not unique to South Africa, we should stop following the trend, and start on innovative new ideas, as we are letting things slip. We have far to go to address the backlogs on infrastructure maintenance and service.”
She states that, by mid-2007, the number of civil engineers working in local government was estimated at 1 300 to 1 400, serving a population of 47-million, which is fewer than three civil engineers for 100 000 people, compared with at least 21 engineers for 100 000 people in the 1980s.
“The load on the civil engineers remaining in local government is excessive. If allowed to continue, service delivery will come to a standstill. At least one civil engineer is needed for every 4 000 to 5 000 households,” she says.
She adds that local government is responsible for sustaining water supply, sanitation, roads, electricity, and waste disposal, healthcare facilities, which is only achievable with the appropriate engineering skills in place.
“The number of civil engineers per 100 000 people working in Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia and Swaziland is more than that of South Africa. The country is very low against the rest of the world and we need to work on our capacity.
“We need to rebuild our civil engineering capacity as we need forward planning, strategic thinking and management in local government; as the novice engineers are unable to deal with such issues. We need to have control over what services are being delivered to the infrastructure industry.
“Civil engineers working in the private sector cannot be expected to cope on their own, as they are already under severe pressure in coping with the mounting work which government is unable to deal with,” she says.
She adds that South Africa cannot afford to find itself in the position of the US in the late eighties and early nineties, when it reported, “We have become so obsessed with dictating how things should be done – regulating the process, controlling the inputs – that we have ignored the outcomes, the results!”
“Skills, leadership and a turnaround strategy are urgently required to rectify the situation,” she concludes.