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“The youth of today and the youth of tomorrow will be accorded an almost unequalled opportunity for great accomplishment and human service”. These words are truer today than in 1931, when author, Nicholas Murray Butler, went up on stage to receive his Nobel Peace Prize. Yet, these are not the words we hear very often anymore.
Youth unemployment, the youth skills gap and economic recession are the terms most associated with the fate of young people in our country today. Rarely do we hear about the limitless potential of young South Africans. We forget that the invention of the CAT scan, the making of the “speed gun” used in cricket ovals the world over, and the world’s first oil-from-coal refinery are solutions devised by young South Africans. We forget that in 1969 the glue used to hold bits of the Apollo XI mission’s Eagle landing craft together was developed by the young Krugersdorp engineer, George Pratley. We forget Mulalo Doyoyo and his invention of cementless concrete.
Our problems are genuine, but if there is ever a group of humans better suited to staring into the face of adversity and coming out on top, it is young South Africans. The Soweto uprising demonstrates the great role our youth plays in the liberation of South Africa. I stand on the shoulders of Hector Pieterson and the youth that fought against inequality and oppression that morning in Soweto on June 16th, 1976. It is through their resolve that I have an opportunity to write this article today. For that, I am grateful. As a consulting engineer, my work in the infrastructure development space has proven to be both a challenging and rewarding experience. As I reflect on my career, I am filled with an overwhelming sense of purpose and pride and a real cause for optimism despite the well-documented challenges.
Young consulting engineers are positioned optimally to serve as future industry leaders and possess the required skills to bring about the necessary change to drive our country forward. No other brand of profession even comes close. Consulting engineers, work both on public and private sector projects and gain vast exposure from working on numerous engineering projects, diverse in a subfield, range, location, complexity and scale. This exposure gave me deep insights into the lay of the land. The experience that a consulting engineer gains is inexhaustible and is an essential component for career and personal development. Furthermore, it is vital to create the link between engineering, infrastructure development and economic growth.
Engineering plays a crucial role in supporting the growth and development of a country’s economy and improving the quality of life for citizens. As such, there is an essential link between a country’s engineering capacity and its economic development. Our tertiary education systems sufficiently gear young engineers with the required tools and skills necessary to provide solutions within the country and the global landscape. South Africa is a signatory to the International Engineering Alliance for both educational and mobility agreements. Our tertiary education system is considered one of the most extensive and highest quality on the African continent.
Despite the high quality of our academic programmes, I realised that there is still a lot to learn as a young engineer after graduating. It may seem overwhelming in the beginning, but knowledge tends to compound over time. The “Eight Wonder”, Einstein called it. It reminds me of the four stages of the competence model developed by Martin M. Broadwell. The four stages relate to the psychological states involved in progressing from incompetence to expert competence in a certain area of knowledge. Basically, we are all initially unaware of how little we know or unconscious of our incompetence- unconsciously incompetent (As “they” say, you don’t know what you don’t know!). As we recognised areas, we lack knowledge in we become consciously incompetent. After we actively acquire knowledge, we can consciously use it – consciously competent. Eventually, the skill can be utilised without it being consciously thought through as we acquire unconscious competence. I found this particularly helpful in unpacking my journey towards self-awareness in my efforts to recognise personal blind spots in my career.
I believe that it is our responsibility as young engineers to constantly assess ourselves for knowledge gaps and continuously grow and develop in all aspects. The rapidly changing knowledge and skill requirements in the engineering profession require that young engineers develop new skills and acquire more specific knowledge to better equip themselves for each succession of engineering role that comprises our career.
Building technical prowess is extremely important in our discipline. However, the focus should not only be on improving technical skills but also focus on the even more important human-centred soft skills needed to ensure project success. The soft skills that I realised were pivotal includes communication, leadership, ethics, and organisational skills. These are essential in having a purposeful and valuable career. Through my experiences and networks, I learnt that young engineers should also give thought to the bigger picture when delivering on infrastructure development projects and be cognisant of socio-economic, political, environmental, and institutional perspectives. Indeed, there is a lot of learning to do here, from how municipalities acquire project funding, the strategies behind spatial planning, how contracts are managed, how socio-economic, and environmental factors can affect a project’s requirements and so forth. Only once we have a proper grip of the status quo of the infrastructure development sector can we look at ways to address broader issues affecting our country, such as corruption, improper planning, access to basic services etc.
In summary, I believe that it is important that we continuously challenge ourselves to expand our understanding of our field to provide solutions. They are not only technically sound but also sustainable and contribute to the greater good of humanity. Despite the negativity that plagues the industry, I am hopeful about the future and remain an optimist. I agree that, yes, there are many problems that we face as a country. But with problems come opportunities to provide solutions.
The solution lies with young consulting engineers who must become the servant leaders that our country desperately needs. To my fellow youth and my consulting engineering peers, this is a message of hope. Here’s to doing good, while doing business!
Bigen Group, Electrical Engineer.
Chairperson: CESA Young Professionals Forum Gauteng North