Nuts and bolts of change

2013-05-27 00:00

THERE is a common thread in arguments about the status of engineering in South Africa: that there are simply not enough black engineers. Research shows that black engineers make up only 14% of South Africa’s professional engineers (those registered with the Engineering Council of South Africa). This sub-par representation, however, does not tell the whole story.

Prior to 1992, there were no formally registered black engineers whatsoever. These numbers are now slowly making a turnaround.

One only needs to look at the number of candidates for professional engineering status and the picture brightens, as some 47% of candidates are black. Broadening the assessment, the percentage of candidate engineering technologists who are black is at 72% and according to Ecsa the proportion of black students enrolling for engineering degrees and diplomas has risen to above 60%. Despite these improvements, a look at the industry as a whole bears some worrying signs.

According to 2005 figures used by the Engineering Council of South Africa, there is only one engineer for every 3 100 people in South Africa. This is one tenth of the number of engineers in developed countries. In the United Kingdom, the number is one for every 310, in Germany it is 200, and in Brazil, a country to which South Africa is often compared due to its middle-income status, you will find an engineer for every 227 people. Furthermore, the representation of women in the industry is highly disconcerting (only three percent of registered professional engineers in South Africa are women).

Despite these challenges, however, many companies in South Africa have taken it upon themselves to improve the situation. Among them is Lesedi Consulting Engineers, a black-owned KwaZulu-Natal-based engineering firm. Since its inception in 2010, the company has been creating employment and offering mentorship and hands-on experience to engineering students to help them complete their studies.

According to managing member Theo Wilcox, who founded the company alongside Sibusiso Mncube, 40% of Lesedi’s permanent employees are women while 70% are youth. He says that Lesedi Consulting Engineers has always had a keen interest in employing women and youth, following a mandate to redress historical imbalances in South Africa.

However, black engineers still face a number of challenges in the industry, and Wilcox notes that his own experiences as a black engineer making his way in an industry that has been slow to transform, includes a number of cases of discrimination and favouritism.

One of the reasons behind the low number of black engineers in South Africa is the lack of mentorship opportunities and of the right support structures for young up-and-coming engineers. The 2012 Infrastructure Sector Research Survey conducted by the South African Institute of Civil Engineering, a survey of 75 companies in the infrastructure sector, found that graduate hiring and training programmes were sorely needed to get talent into the industry.

In the absence of formal support structures, firms like Lesedi have taken responsibility for giving young black engineers the opportunity to excel in the industry. The firm provides training opportunities to students from higher learning institutes, and has converted a number of these to full-time employment positions. The company has also seen a drastic increase in its turnover since the 2010/2011 financial year, proving that capable black-owned engineering firms can make an impact in the industry.

What makes their commitment to youth development so remarkable is that the business itself is only three years old, and most of its senior management could be classified as youths themselves.

Lesedi’s case is not isolated. Other small firms like the A.M. Group, which was registered in 2008 and employees of which consist entirely of black engineers under the age of 30, are featuring more regularly on the South African engineering landscape. “There are a number of small black-owned firms emerging in the [engineering] industry, and the competition is growing quite quickly,” explains A.M. Group’s Founder, Anda Maqanda. He notes that the A.M. Group, which specialises in overhead electrical power line construction and renewable energy, regularly competes with over 20 other proposals from small firms for any project-management opportunities that arise. “That said, the barriers to entry of creating a credible, multifaceted engineering consultancy are high, so many of the smaller operators either merge with others or partner when it comes to submitting tenders. We have done that to our advantage in the past as well, but are now in a position to be able to offer a full spectrum of services as we have grown significantly.”

Transformation in the industry is not only happening at an SME level; some of the infrastructure giants have also made major in-roads in transformation. Murray and Roberts, a historically white firm, now has a BBBEE level three rating and is involved in a number of BEE initiatives. Group Five, another of South Africa’s major construction firms, has a BBBEE rating of level two and has seen the representation of black employees in middle-management double between 2006 and 2012.

The government, too, has shown intent to spur growth and transformation in the industry. In 2001, the Department of Education made a commitment to increase the proportion of higher education enrolments in engineering, science and technology from 25% to 30%, and within this to grow the percentage of black engineering students. Since 2001, this change has taken place and the proportion now exceeds 30%, while the percentage of black engineering students has also grown. The total number of engineering graduates from higher education institutions increased from only 3 100 to almost 10 000 between 2000 and 2010.

The new impetus from the government and the growth of small, civic-minded youth- and black-empowered firms appear to be pushing South Africa’s engineering sector in the right direction, but comparisons to developed and even developing countries show that we still have some way to go.

• Abram Molelemane and Nicholas Owsley write on behalf of Fetola, an organisation that designs and implements enterprise development programmes as well as CSI and BEE scorecard solutions for a range of corporate and government clients.

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