Engineering is considered a scarce skill, not only in South Africa, but on a global scale. Recent figures also show that in South Africa, the industry remains largely lacking in transformation with 12% female compared to 88% male, and 62% white compared to 38% black professionals in the field.
According to the Department of Public Works, engineering is regarded as a profession with a high skills shortage in the country, which needs to be addressed by creating programmes to develop new professionals and produce skills for the various disciplines. Driving this mandate is the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA).
Sipho Madonsela, CEO of ECSA, give some inside information regarding the current state and the challenges in the engineering profession in South Africa, and talks to us about what they are doing to promote and ensure the necessary transformation in this scarce-skills sector.
Who is Sipho Madonsela and where does he come from?
My parents, who were in the church ministry during the 60’s and 70s used to be transferred all over the country. I was born in Witbank but I began to wisen up and understand the world in the South Coast of KwaZulu-Natal. I completed my primary school education in the North Coast. I then went on to complete my secondary education at Bethel College in the former Transkei and completed my matric in KwaMashu. I then went to work for a while and went to the University of the Witwatersrand in 1983 to study engineering, but later completed my Engineering degree at The University of KwaZulu-Natal.
Tell us about the road that has led to your involvement and instatement at ECSA and what you aim to achieve in your current role?
I joined the Engineering Council of South Africa as a volunteer of the profession from 1999 to 2001, as part of the registration committee. I then joined ECSA’s council and was appointed to president of the council in 2005, albeit for a very short while. At this stage I was appointed to serve in the Council for the Built Environment (cbe). I subsequently left the built environment and was appointed CEO of ECSA, the role I currently serve. The main goal I would like to see us achieving is to get as many diverse disciplines of engineers registered into ECSA. We would like to take ourselves into the confidence of the public we serve, to reinforce that we are a transparent public office that seeks to benefit the country and the profession. Lastly I would like to see us have a strong link to the socio-economic development of the country. ECSA is currently too much of a regulatory institution and less of a development entity, so those are the goals I wish to achieve, in taking the Engineering Council of South Africa forward.
What are some of the valuable experience you bring to the Engineering Council of South Africa - and how will this be entrenched in your role?
By virtue of being here before, I understand how to regulate the profession; I’ve been at the CBE which is a higher body that sets certain standards for the professional councils. So I’m privileged compared to other people who have been confined to the sphere of the council itself. Therefore I am able to apply broader national principles within the regulation of the profession, in this setting. I’ve worked with government and also been the president of a volunteer associate the National Society of Black Engineers South Africa (NSBE). I think the experience I’ve gained in leading that group of black engineers and working with government can assist me in taking the organisation forward. I’ve got a broader view of what needs to be done in this environment. When it comes to values, transparency is primary for me. I want to make sure that this happens quite swiftly so we can demystify the notion that we are a ‘boys club’, doing things behind closed doors. In the five months that I’ve been in office, I have taken the executives to the New Registration System roadshow in which we are calling all the engineers of the country to participate in the development of a new registration system which will be informed by outcomes of this engagement. This is differs from the former prescriptive methodology of registration.
Frankly speaking, looking at the state of engineering in South Africa; is it black enough and what is being done to address the situation?
The answer is no, it is not black enough. But one must appreciate that there is a legacy behind it; there are quite a lot of efforts being undertaken to change that picture. South Africa and apartheid did not allow black people to study engineering up until 1979/1980. The first generation of black engineers that were allowed to study are four men that are now retired. When I went to study engineering in 1983 we were the second generation of engineers. There were about 70 black people in the country studying engineering at that time. Therefore, one cannot suddenly expect that in 2015, 25 years later, we will be greater in numbers compared to our white counterparts. Secondary to this is the consideration that when the doors were eventually opened for black people to study engineering in South Africa, they were not only opened to South Africans - they were opened to people from every country on our continent. So you may go to a class at any university and find that in a class of mechanical engineering, there are 50% black students. However, from that class of 50% black students, a number of them come from African states. When they have graduated, the number of black engineers entering the South African engineering sector are a portion of the 50% – with the rest returning to their countries of origin. Therefore the rate at which we can infiltrate the sector is slower than it appears. However, we are making progress.
Besides race, how has the other aspects of transformation like gender transformation been seen to?
Engineering in the past has been seen as a male-dominated profession, but there are quite a number of women that have joined the profession. Similar consideration needs to be given to women’s position in the profession, as that of black people to come into the space. It is going to take a while for that picture to change, but at least there is movement. A journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step. We have taken the first five steps, and it is my hope to ensure we make progress in that regard.
What are some of the biggest challenges still facing the engineering profession today and how does it impact the country at large?
I think the biggest challenge which everyone speaks about is the fact that maths and science are not subjects that South Africans excel in. Yet maths is the language of engineering. Without maths, it’s like living in France when you can’t speak French. You have to have mathematics, and not maths literacy – pure maths. If we can’t produce adequate numbers of pure maths-strong matriculants, we will struggle to overcome the challenge in our education system at present.
What are some of the ECSA’s biggest challenges at the moment and how will you and the council be addressing them?
ECSA has lacked a culture of accountability on how we use resources, and on how much progress is made. We have introduced a new culture of accountability and we have to work methodically and systematically to build the blocks that will enable us to function like a first world corporate entity. An additional challenge has been that the registration of professionals has previously depended on peer judgement. There is a specific group of people that assess one’s application and see if the individual can be accorded the status of being a professional or not. These are people who come as volunteers from voluntary associations and we have learnt that we need more active volunteers to carry out the task more efficiently. Through the NRS road shows we have spoken to people, inviting them to come and assist in the new registration process. We hope at the end of the road show, that we will have a bigger pool of peers that will come and support us in registering more engineers. We also continue to navigate the challenge around compulsory registration. The engineering act 46 of 2000, which is the basis of our existence does not make registration a compulsory requirement for engineers to practice in the profession in South Africa. There are gaps in the act that need to be sorted out and these are the areas we need to improve on. As we do that, we need to focus on what is provided through the legislation and take full advantage of that, through registering as many people as possible; expanding the boundaries of the standards of those who want to be registered and making them attractive by providing a value proposition to engineers out there so they can come in numbers and join us in the profession. These are the challenges we need to address going forward.
What are the effects of the shortage of engineers and registration of engineering qualifications on South African business and the economy at large?
What we need to be asking is, where does the notion that there is a shortage of engineers come from? Africa relies on engineers that are by-and-large from South Africa. We have big engineering companies that other states in Africa do not have. We have the capacity, and many people that have graduated with engineering degrees, that the economy has not been able to absorb. Therefore, I am not convinced that there is a shortage of engineers. What I am convinced of is that we are not doing enough to train the human capital of engineers that we have, and subsequently fit them into the system. There are more engineers in this country than the work itself. The government has been talking about roping in Cubans and there has been a noise about this. Unemployed engineers want to know how government can look elsewhere for engineers, when they are here in the country and unemployed. One cannot continue to say there is a shortage of engineers if there is that kind of outcry out from the profession.