The Presidential Infrastructure Coordinating Commission, which President Jacob Zuma chairs, has to develop a skills roadmap to accompany its 20-year infrastructure plan, recruitment group Landelahni CEO Sandra Burmeister said on Tuesday.
At the launch of the firm’s 2012 'Infrastructure Sector Survey', in Johannesburg, she warned that South Africa was not training enough engineers, artisans and technicians to deliver on its long-awaited R845-billion government infrastructure projects in the medium-term pipeline. A further R3.2-trillion in infrastructure projects are under consideration up to 2020.
“We simply do not have the right kind of skills to meet the specific demand so huge in new infrastructure projects… we continue to face the dichotomy of high unemployment among the unskilled and semiskilled and high vacancy rates for the highly skilled positions,” Burmeister warned.
Although the international economic recovery remained sluggish, the outlook for the global construction sector was more upbeat. Projections were that the sector would grow from $7.2-trillion to $12-trillion in 2020 (67%), driven largely by emerging markets.
In Africa, $20-billion in infrastructure projects were currently under way and Burmeister pointed out that major local companies were looking north of the country’s borders to win a share of the projects being rolled out there.
“South Africa would have to align its educational systems to meet these requirements. We need to take the long-term view of investing in the right kind of skills in South Africa,” Burmeister noted.
She explained that a multipronged approach was needed for filling the talent pipeline in South Africa. “This includes increasing bursary spend in core scarce skills areas of business, increasing graduate hiring and training programmes and extending retirement dates or calling back early retirees.”
Government would also need to increase its capacity to manage outsourced projects and public-private partnerships, which called for more commercially and technically skilled individuals.
Further, Burmeister said South Africa would have to go beyond training people in key technical areas for new construction projects, by also training individuals in the maintenance of existing infrastructure.
A recent Consulting Engineers South Africa report estimated that 15% of local engineers, or 1 800, were working for government, including State-owned entities, while more than 100 engineering posts were vacant. This compared with 40% in 1990.
“We are already relying on international partners to bring expertise not available locally, as we saw with the Gautrain, building of new coal-fired power stations, nuclear energy initiatives and the drive for alternative energy,” she pointed out.
However, the National Treasury reported that, in the 2010/11 year, government only spent 68% of its total capital budget. “Ramping up government capacity to implement R3.2-trillion of mega-projects is an enormous challenge and is likely to result in an increase of public-private partnerships,” Burmeister said.
In South Africa, between 1998 and 2010, a total of 29 280 engineers, across all engineering disciplines, graduated, which come down to an average of 2 252 a year.
This compared sombrely with 1.9-million graduates in China, 763 635 in India and 10 765 in the UK, in 2010 alone.
Although the number of candidate engineers in South Africa was currently relatively robust at 5 600, Engineering Council of South Africa data showed that the conversion to professional engineers was low, as lean organisations were not committing resources to the required three to four years on-the-job mentoring.
The report showed that 74% of local companies were struggling to fill engineering vacancies, with the order book of South Africa-listed construction companies reaching more than R430-billion.
The 2012 Landelahni 'Infrastructure Sector Survey' included 75 companies, with over 300 000 permanent employees in the electricity, water, waste, road, rail and ports sectors, as well as consulting engineers, construction companies and large suppliers to the construction industry.