In his inaugural address as the 110th president of the South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE), Dr Martin van Veelen spoke of the importance of retaining engineering experience – and the wisdom that has grown with it – in government departments responsible for the country’s infrastructure, and equally, of transferring this wisdom and experience to the corps of younger engineers in the public service.
Van Veelen pointed out the shortage of technocrats in those government departments where such skills are essential, highlighting, for example, that in the Department of Water Affairs (DWA) there are only seven engineers in a senior management team of 48 people.
He said that in government departments, like the DWA, the Department of Transport and the Department of Public Works which are involved in creating and maintaining infrastructure, technocrats who over many years had acquired the wisdom to plan ahead and make decisions, have been replaced by a management corps who have not benefited from such experience and do not necessarily have the wisdom needed to make decisions on infrastructure development or maintenance.
Civil engineering cuts across five of the nine development goals set out in the National Development Plan (NDP). This emphasises once again the importance of good relations between engineers and government to achieve the NDP’s aims of providing services and at the same time creating jobs.
Manglin Pillay, CEO of SAICE, notes that the NDP calls for the joint participation of all South Africans to make the dream come true – to make the shift from passive citizenry to active champions in the evolution of our economy. “In my opinion this is an absolute requirement,” he says. “However, while the private sector, organised society and the general public must engage with the NDP, the role of government is fundamental if the goals of the NDP are to be achieved.”
Van Veelen said, “Most engineering practitioners are employed in the private sector. This has led to a situation where most engineering services in government, at national, provincial and local level – where most money is spent on service delivery in the form of the provision, operation and management of infrastructure, are being provided by consultants or people working on a contract basis. This in itself is not a cause for concern, as the work is still done by competent people. However, what is cause for concern is that there is a shortage of experienced professionals working in government who are able to oversee the work that is done and make sure that it is done correctly.”
Van Veelen said that in most government departments there is still a level of retained wisdom. “This sits in middle management with professionals who have some 30 years of experience. However, these professionals will retire within the next five to ten years, and many are taking early retirement. At the same time, there are young professionals at the entry level, and they need experience in order to gain wisdom. There is only one way to gain ten years of experience, and that is to work for ten years under a competent and experienced professional person.”
Looking at the age and demographics of engineering practitioners – professional engineers, technologists and technicians – in national government service, Van Veelen noted that the overall number of engineers in government employ is alarmingly low. The Departments of Water Affairs, Transport and Public Works employ 89 engineers, (plus 15 technologists and 83 technicians) who represent just 1.6% of the civil engineers in South Africa. Of these, 81 are within the DWA, while the DoT has only two. It is acknowledged, however, that the South African National Roads Agency Ltd (SANRAL), which is responsible for the national road network, has 31 engineers on its staff, and other parastatal organisations, such as Transnet, Portnet and ACSA, are responsible for other aspects of transport infrastructure.
Van Veelen further highlighted that the age profile of engineers in central government employ shows a young workforce, with 50% below the age of 35, and only 29% over 49. The statistics also show that only about 31% of the engineers can be classified as previously disadvantaged individuals.
“The fact is that the accumulated wisdom is currently vested in an ageing, mostly white engineering corps. The challenge is to transfer this wisdom to the young upcoming engineers.”
National, provincial and local government remains the biggest employer (directly and indirectly) of engineering services in South Africa. Van Veelen emphasises that it is therefore in the government sector that experienced and knowledgeable professionals are required to plan the development of infrastructure and to oversee the sustainable management of the country’s valuable infrastructure assets, which in essence represents the implementation of the National Development Plan.
Regarding the challenge of transferring the accumulated knowledge and experience to the younger generation of engineers in public service, Van Veelen said that a succession plan that is practical and implementable is urgently needed. “It will require funding,” he said, “and it has to be developed through consultation between government and the private sector to ensure shared ownership and commitment.”
Van Veelen suggested that one option is to create technical directorates in the departments and to man them with experienced engineers and fresh young talent. “These directorates can then initiate and execute projects rather than manage consultants. This will create an environment where young engineers can work under the leadership of experienced engineers to hone their skills and gain experience, thereby re-establishing the necessary wisdom in these departments to enable them to plan ahead.
“Achieving the goals of the NDP relies heavily on the creation of infrastructure to support and stimulate economic growth and create jobs. Planning for infrastructure development requires a capable government, which in turn implies experienced and knowledgeable engineering professionals who can plan how this infrastructure development should unfold, given the limited resources available.
“A blessing to be counted in these circumstances is that South Africa has a highly competent and experienced corps of engineering practitioners. It is one of the few countries on the African continent that does not need consultants from Europe or other countries to solve the challenges of a developing country. Although the situation is that the accumulated wisdom lies in an ageing, predominantly white and male group of professionals, and this is certainly not politically correct, it is a fact. The country cannot afford to disregard this boon if the objectives of the NDP are to be achieved. These engineers are professionals who are willing and able to make a contribution,” Van Veelen said.
Manglin Pillay emphasises that in order to overcome the current infrastructure development challenges, national government needs to apply the same approach that was adopted for the World Cup. “The current challenges are certainly not due to insufficient funding or deficient engineering resources. It is a matter of political will and re-capacitating the technical echelons within government structures.”
To download a summary of the National Development Plan 2030, click here.