Transformation in South Africa, and the approaches taken to realise those ambitions, has been revived as an urgent imperative among proponents in the engineering sector, as questions have emerged as to how far off the mark the industry, and the country, is in progressing towards a more inclusive society.
With black professionals making up only 16% of those employed by Consulting Engineers South Africa (Cesa) member firms, it paints a bleak picture of the progress that has been made, particularly in the private sector, said Aurecon Africa innovation and transformation director Abbas Jamie.
The statistics also seem to suggest that a further divide is emerging between the public and private sectors, and is defeating the objectives of the transformation drive, with many black professionals moving into the public sector to obtain their professional registrations, as many of the young emerging engineers do not feel comfortable in corporate South Africa.
This is further exacerbated by the contrasting world views separating the “leafy suburbs” from the townships, Jamie told delegates at a Cesa seminar on Tuesday.
“As an industry, we need to seriously ask ourselves what have we done over the past two decades,” he said, questioning whether the “new South Africa” had been fully embraced 20 years on.
Black Business Council for the Built Environment president Paul Kgole said that, while South Africa was not yet where it needed to be, particularly in terms of transformation in the workplace, the demographics were slowly balancing out, as seen from the number of black students now studying at universities and tertiary education institutions.
Jamie proposed that the challenge was further being mitigated through the application of analytical solutions, as opposed to the more effective systems thinking approach.
He argued that, while companies and educational facilities were exceptional at training young engineers, there were obstacles emerging post training when the engineers seek out registration and experience, triggering a move into the public sector to gain professional registration and signalling an area that requires significant improvement.
Gender disparity was even wider, with twice as many girls as boys never even starting school, said Cesa young professionals forum chairperson Amanda Masondo-Mkhize, who noted that just shy of 11% of the total number of engineers registered with the Engineering Council of South Africa were women and only 4% were professionally registered.
In addition, it has been reported by Statistics SA that across all sectors women earn a salary that is 27% less than their male counterparts.
However, Phunga Consulting Engineers group CEO Mbulelo Kona outlined a more positive outlook, assuring delegates that it was not all negative and that transformation was under way, giving way to hopes of an inclusive society.
“I am that hope,” he said, pointing out that at 20 years old, he was a student in training and now, in his early thirties, was the group CEO of six companies with an aggregate turnover in excess of R100-million.
Kona conceded that small businesses faced significant challenges, including limited breadth and depth of expertise, the challenge of attracting qualified registered engineers as staff, weaker buying power, lengthy payment terms, contractual and administrative issues and insurance burdens, besides others.
The solutions to these challenges included the sharing of resources; collaboration with other smaller firms; the submission of clear, neat, winning bids; knocking on the doors of bigger companies for further experience; ensuring the business had good ethics; and ensuring they were attractive partners.
“Do things right and do things right the first time,” he concluded.