Skills shortage in South Africa

30 Jul 2018 4:10 AM | Dhruti Dheda (Administrator)

South Africa is facing a distressing skills shortage. At the brink of the fourth industrial revolution, numerous studies and reports show that South Africa does not have sufficient highly skilled individuals to support its growing, increasingly sophisticated economy. There are simply not enough adequately trained engineers, technicians or artisans.   This trend is mirrored by other developing countries. 

This skills shortage can be resultant of several reasons, including: 

•The lack of appropriately qualified high school graduates for Engineering and the Built Environment. Too few high school learners matriculate with university exemption or meet the admission requirements for Engineering and the Built environment , whilst those that do rarely have the expected level of mathematics and physical science knowledge to support their engineering knowledge.

•The decline in the amount of academic staff or mentors at tertiary institutions. This results in a shortage of knowledgeable people to train future engineers, technicians, artisians and technologists.

•The low throughput of students in engineering, technologist and technician degrees. Less than half of the registered students graduate; this causes a loss of the funds (bursaries, grants, scholarships) that were invested to support non- graduating students.

This skills shortage has already, in part, led to lower productivity, low competitiveness, slow adoption of technology and high production costs in South Africa. In the second and third quarters of 2017, 31 000 jobs were lost. This loss is mainly attributed to a decline in manufacturing, mining, electricity, trade, community and business services, as companies chose to use more capital in productive processes and to make use of existent excess capacity.

The development and retention of technical skills is necessary if South Africa wishes to keep pace with its growing population and their increasing infrastructure needs. However, with the present skills shortage, there will not be enough adequately qualified people available to fill the necessary vacancies. 

The problem with equipping students in technical degrees with appropriate skills runs deeper. Naturally, the vast field of Engineering and the Built environment has profound social impacts. It is thus necessary for these students to contextualise the human condition and the social implications of their work. They need to learn how to view the impact of their designs thoroughly and objectively. This requires a multi-disciplinary approach to the challenges facing society. It is rare for a fresh graduate to possess the background necessary to support such an approach. 

As advancements in the fields of energy, transportation, medicine, robotics and artificial intelligence rapidly occur and the world becomes more automated, there will be fewer jobs available to all people (including people with technical backgrounds). Therefore it would seem reasonable for educational systems to focus on training technical professionals to do what computers cannot do. This means that technical education will have to become more diverse to include more life skills and more social, humanities orientated subjects to prepare them for a constantly changing career. Along with a technical education, students should be trained in terms of communication skills, global knowledge, entrepreneurial know-how and the ability to work in teams. 

Many believe that the only way to inculcate this diverse skill set in students is by assigning them real world problems. In these problems the focus is placed on projects rather than lectures.

Engineers without Borders (South Africa) aims to achieve that through our student chapters and the undertaken projects. These projects can double up as vacation work for engineering students. The purpose of these projects are to solve  real world problems faced by  particular communities. During the project students liaise with professionals and sponsors to gain the skills necessary to complete the project, from the planning stage till the implementation stage. Students are involved in every aspect of the project and are trained at every level of the project. The EWB-SA Technical Advisory Board (TAB), a group of professionals who volunteer their skills and experience, regularly meet with project heads from the student chapters to discuss project conception and implementation. Student chapters and their members also partake in the Human Centered Design (HCD) course, which focuses on placing the human experience and condition at the center of the design process. This helps engineering students to contextualise the designs/projects in terms of their social impacts. 

Currently, two of our student chapters are running vacation work projects.  EWB-UP carried out the Kutumela Molefi Primary Farm School project. The aim of the project was to rehabilitate the school at all levels. The site visit with all volunteers occurred on Saturday 23 June 2018. This was followed by the engineering survey from  2-13 July 2018. Progress on the project is ongoing and continuous.

EWB-Unisa is heading a project in the KwaZakhele Township. Current major developments within the precinct of the pilot project include:  the ongoing 200 Million Njoli Square  and a R9.4 million road construction project for IPTS Bus route underway.  The pilot will be running for 6-12 months from June 2018. There is still ample time for interested persons to get involved. 

Any of the projects carried out by our student chapters can be viewed on the official EWB-SA website.  On the relevant Web page of the student chapter along with the chapter contact details any advice, equipment, funding or to volunteer options are available.

Written by Dhruti Dheda on behalf of EWB-SA


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