Civil Engineering Contractor_SA Skills Slippery Slope

More skills can be a bulwark against slipping standards

The skills shortage is threatening to erode one of the core elements of what civil engineering stands for in modern society, making it more vital than ever that all stakeholders commit themselves to the highest possible standards of professional excellence.

We should remember that the original meaning of ‘civil engineering’ is focused on the needs of civil society – and was meant to exist for the benefit of the ordinary man and woman in the street. The thrust here is that civil society should not bear the consequences of a failure by this industry to uphold and apply the standards that protect everyone.

Our skills shortage can be described as a ‘missing middle’ in the ranks of our civil engineering professionals – where there are not enough practitioners with 20-25 years of experience, who should be running our large and important projects. Ideally, their older and more experienced colleagues – many of whom are now approaching retirement – could be on hand with specialised input if necessary.

Instead, we are dealing with a situation where this crucial middle level of principal engineers is thin on the ground, and the weight of responsibility is often falling on the older echelons of the sector – or even on the younger ones who don’t really have enough experience. In theory, these more mature, retirement-age professionals should really now be in a position to mentor and train the newly registered professional engineers into their work roles.

The problem is not a new one, and has been decades in the making. I can remember our class of 1975 at the University of Cape Town numbering about 68 graduates; during the 20 years that followed, these numbers dwindled to 20, 15, and even 10 graduates a year – way too few to sustain the industry into the future. A similar trend was also experienced at the other institutions.

Addressing this issue has not been made easier by the poor quality of school-level teaching in maths and science in the average South African school; this has weakened the overall preparedness of university entrants for the demands of engineering courses – as I have witnessed in my role as an external examiner.

Which brings me back to the vital topic of standards; there is no short cut to becoming a civil engineer. The nature of what we do leaves no room for half-measures or under-achievement; physical structures that are not designed and built to the highest standard will potentially fail and can cost lives. That is why the professional is so closely scrutinised and regulated.

It has therefore been with dismay – and frankly, some dread – that the engineering fraternity has witnessed the disruptions at the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA), the body tasked with maintaining standards and protecting civil society.

While a skills shortage challenges our economy, it is no answer at all to be undermining the standards on which our national infrastructure is built. It is certainly doing graduates no favours by accrediting them for demanding responsibilities without the necessary experience. Rather, it is setting them up for failure – putting them and their employers at grave personal, professional and business risk.

Let us address the skills shortage with better early preparation in maths and science, with stronger candidates in engineering courses, with wider access for applicants from diverse backgrounds, with more intensive mentoring of graduates in the workplace, and with hands-on support for those employed graduates working towards professional registration. - Refer to page 23-25

Graham Howell - Corporate Consultant

SRK Africa