Since the announcement was made that government plans to spend R215-billion on education and skills development and that priority would be given to ensuring that 30 000 more engineers were integrated into the South African economy by 2014, there has been a surge in initiatives to draw school learners, particularly black youth and women, into the profession – largely coordinated under the Engineering Council of South Africa’s (ECSA’s) ‘Engenius’ initiative.
The project coordinates and supports public- and private-sector efforts in its network and in the industry, and distributes inform-ation to promote engineering as a career choice to primary and high school learners. ECSA believes that such collaboration will enable it to make a bigger difference in dealing with the shortage of engineering skills as the programme offers a platform for stakeholders to come together and share ideas, initiatives and resources.
But will this initiative be successful in helping to achieve government’s goals by 2014?
Although the South African Institution of Civil Engineering (Saice) believes the initiative is a positive one, especially as it strengthens the visibility of engineering, it says it is not possible to add 30 000 engineers by the target date.
Saice media and outreach officer Marie Ashpole argues that this would require far-reaching changes to South Africa’s education system and government would have to ensure there was sufficient capacity in the public and private sectors to employ more engineers.
Further, the country would need to build up the teaching capa-bility at primary and secondary school level and ensure that the tertiary sector was appropriately resourced, Saice council member Dr Chris Herold adds. He indicates that it would take at least seven years for South Africa to reach a point where its educational institu-tions could produce more graduate engineers than are already in the pipeline and these graduates would still need on-the-job training for a further three years.
On the other hand, School of Consulting Engineering manager Brenda Lacey-Smith believes Engenius will be as successful as the industry makes it – the school is an initiative of Consulting Engineers South Africa (Cesa).
“Developing a sufficiently large and competent resource pool of engineers is critical for growth in the engineering industry. Any endeavour, and in particular the Engenius programme, can only add value both in the short and long terms in the country,” she says.
ECSA head of corporate services Dr Nozizwe Chinkanda says the programme is proceeding well and generally encounters enthusiasm from those introduced to it. Currently, about 58 organisations have partnered with ECSA in Engenius and many more will be encouraged to join. Their addition to the network is a significant achievement, considering that the programme only actively re-emerged in October, before which a lack of resources kept it frozen.
The Engenius task team comprises voluntary associations, such as Cesa, Saice and South African Women in Engineering (SAWomEng), statutory bodies, public and private enterprises, higher education institutions, sector education and training authorities, schools and further education and training (FET) colleges.
Government is currently repre- sented by the Department of Science and Technology, the Department of Public Works, as well as government-funded institutions, such as the South African Qualifications Authority and the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre.
One of the main aims of Engenius is to “change the career conversation” between learners and their families, particularly in black households, says Chinkanda. She explains that learners with good maths and science skills are inclined to consider medicine or, more recently, accounting, as their first career choice, and this initiative intends to put engineering on the table.
To this end, Engenius has a number of initiatives in place. Firstly, the Engenius website will be launched toward the end of May. Aimed at primary and high school learners, the content will elucidate engineering disciplines and feature engineering careers, interactive games as well as updates on competitions and events.
Those without computer access will be reached through cell-phones. Through cooperation with their teachers, Grade 11 and 12 maths and science learners will be informed about potential bursaries at the end of the year through SMSes. Unfortunately, exploiting smartphone technology will only be possible through additional funding, notes Chinkanda.
Engenius will also be launching a five-minute DVD (or brochures for underprivileged schools) that will be distributed to as many primary and high schools as possible, explaining different engineering disciplines using life models in a fun manner. She says this helps to ‘put a face to engineering’, making the youth aware that it surrounds their everyday life and offers potentially effective solutions to structural problems.
Engenius supports several conferences and exhibitions, including the 75th yearly Institute of Municipal Engineering of Southern Africa conference, held in October this year, in Johannesburg. In its speaking slot, the council will be drawing attention to its engineering skills development drive, particularly the Engenius programme.
ECSA also aims to start a training programme this year for facilitators who will present at different events, such as competitions and exhibitions and at science centres, promoting engineering as a career choice. The facilitators will be university students in their third or fourth years, or available young engineers working in the field, preferably black women. The group will be trained by experienced engineers who will be sourced through ECSA.
The presentations will also be facilitated by ECSA’s volunteer network and will be highly interactive and hands-on, allocating engineering problem-solving tasks to small groups or individuals.
Engenius also supported this year’s Sci-Bono Week, held at the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre, in Newtown, Johannesburg. It included presentations and activities by engineering students, women engineers and Engenius member organisations. Engenius involved as many organisations from its network as possible for the week, says Chinkanda, which she believes made it the success it was, with reportedly 3 264 learner visitors, providing good exposure for the Engenius programme and engineering in general.
Engenius will initiate several competitions, where science and maths play a central role. These will be run by stakeholders and will help to draw other potential sponsors. For example, Aqualibrium, the Saice-Trans-Caledon Tunnel Authority schools water competition, is run countrywide by Saice branches and culminates in the finals to be held at the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre on July 29. Engenius will use this com- petition at workshops at several science centres. It involves learners in the design, building and oper- ating of a water distribution network.
The competition strengthens government’s initiatives aimed at encouraging learners to take mathematics and science at school and to follow a career as a science or civil engineering professional, says Ashpole. She notes that, as a direct result of this competition, several students are currently studying civil engineering at different institutions, and such projects are therefore essential to effectively tackle the skills shortage.
One of Saice’s hands-on com- petitions for high school learners is the International Bridge Building competition run with consulting engineering and management firm BKS, where teams must design, construct and test a bridge built with a building kit. It is believed that this competition has, during its existence of almost 20 years, inspired many learners to become civil engineering professionals.
Engenius partners, State-owned power utility Eskom, national mineral research organisation Mintek and telecommunications provider Telkom, also run competitions requiring learners to build an engineering-related project, adds Chinkanda.
Cesa adds its support to the campaign by promoting collabor-ation, coordination and creating support among organisations involved in advancing the engi- neering profession. It also promotes careers in the engineering profession at primary and secon- dary schools, FET colleges, universities of technology and universities to increase the number of learners, specifically female and black learners, entering the engineering profession – the two main aims of the Engenius campaign.
Engenius gives Cesa a vehicle by which to achieve its mandate and to hopefully play an active role in reaching its aims, says Lacey-Smith. The association tries to get all its 477 member firms involved in the collaborative projects. Cesa will also be holding its National Job Shadow Month from July 1 to 29, this year, which exposes and entices high school learners to the engineering field, particularly to consulting engineering.
Meanwhile, Saice, in collabor- ation with the Construction Industry Development Board, the South African Federation of Civil Engineering Contractors (Safcec) and other partners, has since 2008 organised the Youth in Construction week, initially held in Gauteng and since expanded to Durban and Cape Town.
Youth in Construction chair-person Christia Uys says it exposes learners to construction fields of study and acts as a means for the building sector to reach out to, and encourage, school learners to join the industry. Safcec and Saice have also produced a career industry DVD focusing on the civil engineering industry to assist teachers in guiding learners towards possible careers in this field.
Chinkanda says the only foreseeable challenge for Engenius is a lack of funding as it is not government-funded, relying on a small budget from ECSA and fundraising. The council is canvassing for funds for the programme, hoping to get money from those interested in promoting the engineering profession in industry, and is approaching members and nonmembers alike.
Lacey-Smith concurs, and says getting financial funding for such outreach programmes is always a challenge. However, they offer a great opportunity for companies to become involved as they complement corporate social investment programmes well, she says, adding that such involvement brings company recognition and the opportunity for businesses to have a direct and indirect impact on changing the current local skills shortage.
Women in Engineering
Another key drive is to attract women to the profession. In 2010, there were about 35 000 engineers registered with ECSA in South Africa, of which just under 3 000 were female, although the actual number of engineers is unknown as it is not yet mandatory to register with the council, says SAWomEng cofounder Naadiya Moosajee. However, there is a conscious effort from industry to change this.
SAWomEng provides a platform for new and experienced engineers to interact and learn from one another. This is partly achieved by inviting industry engineers to become potential mentors to university students, with the organisation offering mentorship training and teambuilding exercises.
Further, SAWomEng’s sixth Annual Conference targets female engineering students in the penultimate, final and postgraduate years. At this forum, the top 70 female engineering minds in the country will be brought together and an innovative think-tank created to tackle the theme of building sustainable communities through green buildings. Its expectations are to make engineering students aware of local realities and incubate their engineering minds to find innovative solutions, thus creating more socially conscious engineers, she says.
SAWomEng’s GirlEng division was launched in 2009 and offers mentoring and coaching to young girls. Besides other activities, it will host open information sessions in Kwazulu-Natal, Gauteng, the Western Cape, the Northern Cape and Mpumalanga, in which girls are introduced to the world of engineering through talks and career stands presented by university students and industry experts.
It will also host a camp this year, where 60 ‘high-potential’ girls are invited to spend a weekend with the GirlEng team and industry representatives. It comprises team building activities, a technical project, mentorship activities, industry talks, information on university and bursary applications and networking oppor- tunities.
Moosajee says the programme is growing at an increasingly rapid rate, with at least ten new schools targeted every year. At its first event this year – an inform-ation session in Kwazulu-Natal – 250 girls attended, almost double that for the 2010 event.
Saice and BKS also have a ‘Take a girl-child on site’ day in support of the Cell C ‘Take a girl-child to work’ day, where about 30 previously disadvantaged girls are taken to an engineering company to experience the administration aspect of civil engineering and then the practical side by visiting a construction site.
Saice has registered more than 9 300 individual civil engineering professionals as members but, according to the World Federation of Engineers’ Capacity Building Guideline 2010, the figures are disturbing. In Brazil, there is one engineer for every 227 people, and in India, one engineer for every 157 people; in Chile, one engineer for 681 people, and in Australia one engineer for every 455 people. In comparison, South Africa has one engineer for every 3 166 people.
Lacey-Smith says that, although the industry is making every effort to change the situation, it takes four to ten years, with adequate support form coaches and mentors, to get a graduate sufficiently competent to register as a professional engineer.
Hence, Cesa and Saice have established a Candidate Academy, run by a Saice Section 21 com-pany, Civils Masakheni, which supports graduates on their road to professional registration with ECSA. Graduates need concerted and ongoing hands-on training in the workplace to become competent professionals, says Lacey-Smith.
Ashpole says the academy was developed by Civils Masakheni director Dr Allyson Lawless as most engineers lacked the time to train graduates to meet ECSA’s registration requirements. On average, without support, it can take graduates between 9 and 11 years to gain enough experience in the different engineering disciplines to be considered for registration, explains Ashpole. However, as the academy offers courses that complement their tasks on the job, this period has been reduced to about four years.
While attracting people to engineering is important, SAWomEng is increasingly seeing the need for the industry to retain engineers. “If the engineering industry and the country are going to have enough engineers to provide infrastructure to meet growth targets and support industry, it needs to be as competitive and aggressive in attracting and retaining its engineers,” says Moosajee.
Drawing in Retirees
In 2009, ECSA encouraged retired engineers to contribute to skills transfer to young professionals and hailed efforts by some municipalities to recruit them as mentors. Further, the Minister of Public Works recently called on all retired, unemployed and not yet qualified engineers and artisans to apply to the department to create an engineers and artisans database and assist the department to deliver on its infrastructure development mandate, contributing to job creation and a sustainable skills pipeline.
SAWomENG reports the biggest shortage of engineers is at muni- cipal level and it applauds the actions by the department to try to attract these skills back, even if only in a mentorship capacity.
Cesa believes the role that retired engineers could play is critical in both enhancing and taking the process forward, as engineering staff are already stretched thin. It is important that the industry and government share resources, lessons learnt and success stories and form guidelines to enhance the infrastructure development mandate and to contribute to job creation and a sustainable skills pipeline, says Lacey-Smith.
Saice has been active in including retirees since 2006, through its Engineers Now to Ensure Roll-Out by Growing Young Skills (ENERGYS) programme imple- mented by Lawless. The programme was devised to tackle the needs identified in the Saice publication ‘Numbers & Needs: Addressing imbalances in the civil engineering profession’.
ENERGYS’ senior/retired engineers were teamed with students and graduates across cultural, political and demographic divides and sent to local authorities with a focus on accelerated mentoring and training, as well as tackling bottlenecks in service delivery. As close-knit units, they have made a significant difference in more than 50 municipalities, says Ashpole. The total deployment figures as at January 31, 2011, were 34 seniors, seven graduates and 40 students doing experiential training.
ENERGYS is receiving cofunding from certain municipalities and the Gauteng province for the seniors, ensuring they continue to contribute to development in most Gauteng municipalities.
Despite a few setbacks in these initiatives, the profession seems to be gaining traction in exposure to schools learners, particularly young women and learners from underprivileged backgrounds. However, it remains to be seen whether underfunding will be the major stumbling block to programmes to stimulate engineering recruitment.