Increasing awareness of the skills required to advance civil engineering education in South Africa is integral to unlocking employment opportunities, specifically within the country’s municipal sector, advocates South Africa Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE) CEO Vishaal Lutchman.
“The pathology of education in South Africa has largely been the focus on moving from a secondary education into tertiary university education with the aim of acquiring a degree,” he explains.
“While universities do form an integral part of educating our youth, other options such as high-quality vocational colleges and artisanal training should be equally promoted,” he adds.
The challenge of promoting this balanced focus on skills could be the result of the difficulty many people experience when trying to participate in our mainstream economy as well as the stubborn income inequality that persists in South Africa.
"There is a perception that only the academic space and a degree will earn you a higher salary while providing employment protection. And while tertiary university education is vital in promoting skills needed to support economic growth together with other benefits, the opportunity remains to promote other much needed skills, such as artisans,” he laments.
Unfortunately, many South Africans are not aware of the value of artisans, such as supervisors, foremen, and other specialists, in our industry and the critical role they play in building the economy and the infrastructure of tomorrow.
“The country needs to find a balanced approach to promote both artisanal trade qualifications and qualifications received from universities. The facts are available to us – only 7.5% of our youth are being absorbed into the labour force every year. This means there is a ballooning number of young graduates that remain,” says Lutchman.
“There remains an opportunity for artisanal skills and capacity to be developed in municipalities as it applies to maintenance and care for public infrastructure. With highly skilled artisans and effective deployment of municipal budgets, we would be able to create much needed employment as well as advance the upkeep of our public infrastructure,” he adds.
All stakeholders in the construction sector have a responsibility to encourage youth to explore all forms of employment opportunities, both in the artisanal and academic space. “At the same time, we need to encourage the development of our technical colleges so that they can continue to provide the high-quality skills and expertise needed to fill the many employment opportunities available,” he explains.
According to Lutchman, quality outputs from technical and vocational education training colleges, and the promotion of their value to the economy, has to be highlighted as critical. This will serve to grow our construction sector and equip our municipal work forces to deal with the demand for effective maintenance. In a capital constrained market, maintenance is a plausible focus area to make meaningful impacts to current unemployment and opportunities for youth participation.
“This change in the educational narrative is also an important one that needs to be entrenched at a municipal level to create opportunities and appoint more artisans to provide the necessary services that are required.”
Lutchman believes that municipalities’ efforts to meaningfully employ youth will assist in bridging the youth unemployment challenge. Given the complexity of work that many municipalities require, much of which he believes can be performed by the youth, we need a stronger drive towards quality and technologically advanced artisan training in South Africa’s education system.
This, for example, will assist in addressing the current mismatch of skills and bring a balanced approach into how workplace skills could be better administered between artisans and engineers, who need to work hand in hand to address the country’s infrastructure challenges.
“We need to be committed to teaching artisans to be creative, and enable them to have the right tools and technology to do the work needed to drive the success we want to achieve within our country’s municipalities,” he adds.
Lutchman advises that municipalities consider an adjustment of existing structural arrangements to incentivise the procurement of youth services within tendering processes to promote the employment of this age group, as is the case with broad-based black economic empowerment. A direct drive for municipalities to encourage youth responses to opportunities will assist in achieving a balance between technical skills production and deployment.
“To support unemployed youth to access opportunities within municipalities, meritocracy on the back of high-quality education must be used as one of the guiding principles of recruitment,” says Lutchman.
This will open up a level playing field, providing opportunity for the right people to be employed to provide the right service,” Lutchman concludes.