/ 6 September 2013

Building an environment fit for humankind

Building An Environment Fit For Humankind

The built environment is a phrase that encompasses a broad range of professions.

However, the current economy is not being kind to the built environment and there are some challenges that must be overcome to ensure students have places to go when they qualify.

The definition of the built environment as put forward by the Built Environment Professions Bill is described as “the physical world that has been intentionally created through science and technology for the benefit of mankind”.

The professions that fall under this broad definition include quantity surveying, engineering, landscape architecture, construction management, architecture, building science and urban planning.

Leon White is the skills development manager of the Council for the Built Environment (CBE) and he outlines some of the biggest challenges that he believes are facing graduates within the industry at the moment.

“We are building skills, offering bursaries and putting people through built environment programmes, yet the promised infrastructure development by the government is not materialising and not creating the jobs,” says White.

“On the other hand there are the issues of construction companies involved in corruption and collusion, which have placed a negative taint on the industry as a whole.”

The CBE has worked hard to combat these issues by holding more regular career exhibitions, advising prospective students about the requirements involved in these professions and giving them the information they need to make the right choices, he says.

In addition, the CBE provides bursaries in the six fields of architecture, city and regional planning, engineering, property evaluation, quantity surveying, construction and project management and landscape architecture, giving support to prospective students from previously disadvantaged backgrounds.

“There are different challenges facing the different career paths and I believe that some built environment professions are struggling because of the global economic slowdown,” says Dr Tanja Winkler, senior lecturer at the School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics at the University of Cape Town.

For a number of careers within the built environment, an economic boom is needed to boost their momentum.

Fiscal growth and investment result in increased development that provides jobs for this sector.

This doesn’t mean that people should give up on a career in engineering or architecture; however, it does ask that they take off the rose tinted spectacles and make the right decisions for their futures.

A growing need
“As far as I am concerned this is a very rewarding career,” says White. “We need more women and black people in these occupations as these careers are for intellectuals who can think outside the box and be innovative. It isn’t all technical ability and those qualities are vital to a successful future in this field.”

The economy may be impacting the flow of work to graduates and limiting the opportunities for them to complete their year of experiential training, which they need to complete in order to qualify, but not all fields are affected.

Winkler says that urban planning remains a sought after profession and has the potential to drive change across the other areas of the built environment.

“Urban planning is a desperately needed skill and a profession that asks students to think critically and across a multitude of disciplines,” says Winkler.

“To become an urban planner you need to have a spatial understanding of cities and surrounding region, as well as economic, social, environmental and political understandings. It is a complex career path that is in demand the world over, but specifically in developing countries.”

“It needs an understanding of how and where to house people; how to provide urban infrastructure and public transport; and how to promote greater citizen involvement in urban planning decisions,” she says.

“In southern Africa, we are looking at an urban growth rate of more than 3% annually and we need people who can find ways of meeting the challenges presented by this growth.”

Those who meet this qualification are able to work in the private, public and NGO sectors and tackle anything from informal settlements to food security at a national level.

All is not lost for the engineer or the architect, of course, because the government is working towards job creation within the built sector.

The Council for the Built Environment 2011/2012 annual report revealed that the Independent Development Trust had created 25 528 job opportunities and the expanded public works programme had created 39 687.

It also showed that the total number of registered built environment professionals had grown by 22% since 2007, of which 62% were black.

These figures may not be the most remarkable, but they do show an industry that is committed to driving change and encouraging growth. More investment in the industry would mean a lower skill gap.

Other initiatives worth noting include TWP Projects, which established planning schools to develop project management skills and the recent agreement between the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and The Innovation Hub, Africa’s first accredited Science and Technology Park.

The department of public works recently ran its winter school camp initiative to encourage students to enter into careers in the built environment and attendees plenty of insight into the industry as a whole.

Then there is the Monyetla work readiness programme that had its first awards in July and has seen partnerships between business, government and industry to deal with the challenge of youth unemployment and provide participants with valuable skills, including those in the built environment.

While there remain issues with employment and internships for many of the built environment sectors, the situation is changing and the challenges are being met head-on by the industry bodies that support it.