Our government published a list of 100 scarce skills in South Africa (why not 97 or 103?). Seven of the top ten are infrastructure engineers (electrical, civil, mechanical, …) and I guess this report dovetails nicely with the NDP (National Development Plan) which is going to give us roads, dams and clinics in places we’ve never heard of before.
It’s a good acknowledgement that we should treasure the engineering disciplines and encourage more people to build careers in infrastructure build.The engineering councils have been saying for years that these shortages exist and if we don’t skill up they say there’ll be dire consequences. So why am I scratching my head wondering why no-one is seeing the “great disconnect”?
In my daily work there is no shortage of infrastructure engineers. I constantly receive messages from young engineers who have graduated well from very reputable tertiary facilities and they can’t find jobs. This doesn’t sound like a skills shortage.
Okay so let’s take a step to the side and ask what will happen if we get the green light to build all those dams and rail lines? Where are we going to get the engineers from to run the projects? We had the same kind of rhetoric in 2006/7 when we started building the infrastructure for the Soccer World Cup, at the same time as every developer in South Africa was putting up office blocks and retirement villages on spec. Do you remember what happened? Engineers appeared out of the woods – farmers suddenly became civil foremen and teachers suddenly became high-rise building project managers. The main contractors recruited aggressively overseas and had to pay enormous salaries to bring back the thousands of South African expats who had gone to work in London and Dubai. The projects carried on.
Then in 2010/11, directly after the Soccer World Cup, the main contractors started shedding jobs at a rapid pace, and the first people to go were the farmers and the teachers. The highly salaried expats were the next to go and the long-term career engineers stayed in place. All that happened were salaries went up 50% in 18 months and then the pendulum swung back to where it had started.
We now see ourselves in the same situation. We want to build big but are worried we aren’t going to find the people. I just don’t agree. As far as I’m concerned, the people are there but they aren’t being utilised, and what I don’t want to see happen is matriculants studying for the next 3 years as engineers only to find out that the jobs never appeared.
To quote a kitsch Hollywood movie, “If you build it, they will come”. There are no more excuses for rolling out the NDP.