South Africa urgently requires engineers for development

Catch-up: South Africa is lagging behind the rest of the world in engineering, but skills must be grown with transformation in mind. (Photo: courtesy Wits)

Catch-up: South Africa is lagging behind the rest of the world in engineering, but skills must be grown with transformation in mind. (Photo: courtesy Wits)

Nothing in the modern world is possible without engineering — from the production of medical equipment that saves lives, to space exploration, from energy generation to developing new ICT systems — there is a global demand for highly skilled engineers, and particularly in South Africa.

To an extent it is engineers who link science and people; engineers ensure that technology is suitable for human use. Their role is irreplaceable, especially in a knowledge economy. According to the Engineering Council of South Africa (Ecsa), the international benchmark of engineers per population shows that South Africa lags behind globally. South Africa has one engineer per 2 600 people compared to international norms, where one engineer serves 40 people. There are just over 16 000 registered professional engineers in the country.

So, how does a country like South Africa develop the scarce skills required to address the problems of the 21st century?

“South Africa runs the risk of being left behind and of being marginalised by the global community if we do not consider, as a national priority, the need to invest in universities in general, and engineering in particular,” says Professor Ian Jandrell, dean of the faculty of engineering and the built environment at the University of the Witwatersrand. “It is only universities that can replicate in great measure the high-level scarce skills to move our country forward and to foster development on the continent.”

Jandrell adds: “We are working intensely with the private and public sectors to tackle national problems such as energy generation, deep-level mining, mining safety, water purification systems and transport and urban development, among others. At the same time we are contributing to the economy through Tshimologong, the new Digital Innovation Hub in Braamfontein, and working closely with the mining industry to ensure that sustainability, safety and new mining methods are prioritised.”

Given government’s R1-trillion commitment to developing public infrastructure programmes, it is imperative to encourage collaboration between academia and the private and public sectors to ensure that collective strengths, knowledge and skills are harnessed in order to promote innovation that will make a difference in the lives of ordinary people.

“A great example of co-operation with the private sector to address the shortage of skills lies in a relationship that Wits’ National Aerospace Centre has with Airbus and Boeing. This includes postgraduate scholarships and human capital development programmes to develop the human talent pipeline that industry requires, while producing new knowledge for the aerospace industry,” says Jandrell.

Transformation of the curricula taught at universities should be a continuous process to ensure that students are at the cutting edge of technology, new knowledge and research. Training should also be subject to the requirements of industry players and appropriate professional and accrediting bodies.

“We are responding in innovative ways to the challenges facing Africa today,” adds Jandrell. “To this end, Wits will be offering new postgraduate qualifications in oil and gas, chemical, metallurgical and systems engineering, mining planning and optimisation and mineral asset valuation.”

The importance of international partnerships is also highlighted by Jandrell. “Africa’s first internationally recognised postgraduate programme in aeronautical engineering will enable students to graduate from Wits and Embry-Riddle University in the United States. It will allow South African aeronautical engineers to participate fully in the global supply chain of the aeronautical industry and in global projects that require advanced skills. This degree will allow the country’s engineers to be more competitive in the aeronautical industry, which will drive rapid industry growth and sustainability.”

But are universities doing enough to address transformation in the sector? According to the 2015 Ecsa Annual Report, of 16 423 registered professional engineers in the country, 13 794 were white and 1 496 black African, with just over 1 000 from the Indian and coloured population groups.

“Transformation is a priority and we are proactively implementing strategies to address transformation in innovative ways. As this is a sector-wide challenge we are working with the Setas in this space to achieve it as effectively as possible. For example, we have introduced additional classes, cross-disciplinary programmes, an internship year and short courses to better empower students,” says Jandrell.

“We are also piloting a mechanism for students to immediately repeat unsuccessful courses as well as a programme with WitsPlus Centre for Part-Time Studies to allow working students to complete their honours degrees. We are working with partner universities to find a way for students to articulate between institutions within the higher education system.”

The number of engineering graduates needs to increase dramatically in the next few years if we are to respond to the challenges posed by the National Development Plan. This is a collective responsibility that should be shared by all key social actors in order to move South Africa forward.

Shirona Patel is the spokesperson for the University of the Witwatersrand