The prevailing shortage of engineers has been identified by the Presidential Infrastructure Coordinating Commission (PICC) as a major potential impediment to the effective implementation of South Africa’s ambitious infrastructure investment programme, which currently comprises 17 Strategic Integrated Projects, or Sips.
The PICC’s newly released infrastructure plan indicated that there were nearly 23 000 registered engineers in South Africa, of which about 5 500 were working in the public sector, including at the large State-owned companies, such as Eskom and Transnet.
Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel, whose department acts as the secretariat for the PICC, indicated on Friday that as part of a multipronged response to the “bottleneck” government would consider further easing immigration rules for technical professionals.
He said the main thrust, however, would be to “grow our own timber” by beefing up the capacity of local universities to produce engineers at a rate commensurate with the needs of the infrastructure programme. In addition, resources would be directed towards the Further Education and Training colleges to train technologists and technicians.
However, he acknowledged that it had become difficult for graduates to gain work experience given the recent stop/start nature of public and private investment initiatives.
Efforts would also be made to attract those South African engineers currently living and working abroad to return to South Africa to apply their skills to what was emerging as a multidecade, multitrillion-rand programme to expand energy, transport and water infrastructure.
“A third [component] is to ease the rules relating to the immigration of scarce skills,” Patel said at a gathering hosted by the PICC in Ekurhuleni to expose officials from all three spheres of government to the main components of the infrastructure plan.
“If there are people with excellent skills that want to come and live and work in South Africa, we are opening it up for them. But we will open it up mindful of the need to couple that with skills transfer arrangements, so that, in the long run, we build the domestic skills base.”
He stressed that there was nothing wrong with encouraging people with scarce skills to “settle” in South Africa. “It is a very important part of ensuring that we have the necessary talent pool to draw upon.”
But the comments were made against a backdrop of concern within the local engineering community that existing engineering talent was not being appropriately deployed.
In fact, South African Institute of Civil Engineers CEO Manglin Pillay told Engineering News Online recently that the poor implementation of government projects had left a number engineers unemployed, or under-employed. This had forced many to ply their trade and settle elsewhere.
There was also concern that the Department of Home Affairs might not be fully aligned to the proposed immigration easing agenda.
New rules were reportedly being contemplated that could make it even more onerous for those seeking South African work permits. Such individuals and their families might, in future, be required to report in person to designated embassies to deliver the necessary documentation. In the past, courier services, or agents could be employed.