Many South African engineers leave the country because of better international opportunities and their unwillingness to work in dysfunctional government institutions.
This is the warning from Professor Mark Swilling, co-director at the Centre for Sustainable Transitions at Stellenbosch University.
Swilling said the loss of engineers has plagued South Africa for many years. “It is a major problem and has been registered by engineering bodies for a number of years,” he said.
He said international opportunities are only part of why South African engineers leave the country or are lost to the industry.
More importantly, engineers refuse to participate in dysfunctional institutions. Eskom and the municipalities are good examples of such institutions.
“Institutional meltdown and dysfunctionality over the last twenty years has been a primary driver of the loss of talent,” he said.
“Talented people, independent of how much you want to pay them, refuse to be part of dysfunctional institutions.”
He explained that municipalities rely on qualified and experienced engineers to function but have been unable to hold on to these skills.
Many of these engineers either move to large municipalities, leave the country, or become consultants because of the collapse of local authorities.
Swilling’s words echo those of South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE) president Steven Kaplan.
Kaplan said the most important thing to improve local service delivery and infrastructure is ensuring municipalities have the right people and skills.
The reality in South Africa is that local government has lost many qualified and experienced engineers over the last fifteen years.
Research by former SAICE president Dr Allyson Lawless showed that junior technicians had replaced senior engineers working in local government.
Her research showed that there had been a migration of skills, especially professional engineers, towards the private sector and global markets.
There has been a displacement of older, experienced engineers in municipalities between the ages of 45 and 60.
“In 2005, there was a balance between the senior engineers, technologists, and technicians at local government,” Kaplan said.
The situation changed dramatically over the last decade, with virtually no senior engineers left at municipalities.
The senior engineers were replaced by an abundance of new graduate technicians and technologists with no experience. Very few new engineers were employed.
“It means the young incoming graduates don’t have anyone in the workplace to provide structured mentorship programmes,” Kaplan said.
These programmes are essential for skills development and service delivery and guide new graduates to become productive professionals.
He said many municipalities don’t have a single registered professional engineer to guide the young graduates.
The charts below show how civil engineering practitioners’ age and qualifications in local government have changed over the last fifteen years.