Signs of Transformation in the Engineering Sector

Abram Molelemane and Nicholas Owsley

There is a commonthread 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 (Cruise, J. A. (2011) The Gender and Racial Transformation of Mining Engineering in South Africa, The Journal of The Southern African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, 111, April 2011, pp.217-224).Reason suggests that the apartheid education legacy would have created a ‘lag period’ for aspiring black engineers to register as professionals, as it would have been difficult for them to attain educational benchmarks. 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 the proportion of black students enrolling for engineering degrees and diplomas has risen to above 60%(ECSA,(2013) Member Statistics-March 2013). Despite these improvements, the representation of black society in the engineering industry still has room to grow, and a look at the industry as a whole bears some worrying signs.

Theo Wilcox and Sibusiso Mncube of Lesedi Consulting Engineers

Theo Wilcox and Sibusiso Mncube of Lesedi Consulting Engineers

According to 2005 figures used by the Engineering Council of South Africa, there is only one engineer for every 3100 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 3% of registered professional engineers in SA 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 Engineering, a black-owned KwaZulu Natal based engineering firm (www.lesediconsultants.co.za). 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.

“We are aware of the imbalances in our country, and because of that our company has a special focus on social development and resolving these issues, especially of gender imbalance,” explains managing member Theo Wilcox, who founded the company alongside Sibusiso Mncube and Clyde Pellew.

According to Wilcox, 40% of Lesedi’s permanent employees are women (significantly above the industry average) whilst 70% are youth. He says that Lesedi Consulting Engineering has always had a keen interest in employing women and youth,following a clear mandate to redress historical imbalances in South Africa.

However black engineers still face a number of challenges in the industry, andWilcox 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 SA is the lack of mentorship opportunities and of the right support structures for young up-and-coming engineers. The 2012 Infrastructure Sector Research Survey (South African Institute of Civil Engineering (2012)pp. 44-49), a survey of 75 companies in the infrastructure sector (including major engineering and construction firms),  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 cancertainly make an impact in the industry.

What makes their commitment to youth development so remarkable is that the business itself is only 3 years old, and most of its senior management could be classified as‘Youths’ themselves. The example that Lesedi, as a small and growing firm, is setting lays down the gauntlet to more established firms in the industry to turn their far deeper pool of resources towards development and transformation.

Lesedi’s case is not isolated.Other small firms like the AM Group (www.amgroups.co.za), which was registered in 2008 and whose employees consist entirely of black engineers under the age of thirty, 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 AM Group’s Founder, Anda Maqanda. He notes that the AM Group, which specialises in overhead electrical power line construction and renewable energy, regularlycompetes 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, multi-faceted 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 & Roberts, an historically white firm, now has a BBBEE level 3 rating and is involved in a number of BEE initiatives. Group Five, another of South Africa’smajor construction firms, has a BBBEE rating of level 2 and has seen the representation of black employees in middle-management double between 2006 and 2012.The company Vision clearly states that the firm is‘working towards sustainable and relevant company transformation’.

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 educationenrolments 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 thirty per cent, whilst the percentage of black engineering students has also grown (Advice and Monitoring Directorate Council on Higher Education, (2009) The State of Higher Education in South Africa. Higher Education Monitor, No. 8). The total number of engineering graduates from higher education institutions increased from only 3100 to almost 10000 between 2000 and 2010 (Seggie, E. (2012) SA’s Engineering Shortage Widens)

The new impetus from Government and the growth of small, civic-minded youth- and black-empowered firms appears to be pushing South Africa’s engineering sector in the right direction. These changes, and the increased output of engineering graduates,are providing much needed skills to tackle South Africa’s infrastructure and transformation demands, but comparisons to developed and even developing countries show that we still have some way to go.

About the authors

Abram Molelemane is a third year journalism student at the Tshwane University of Technology. He has written for various publications such as Wealthwise magazine and Reckord newspaper. In 2011 he was nominated for the Reckord print journalist of the year award. He is currently a media officer at Fetola.

Nicholas Owsley graduated from the University of Cape Town in 2012 with Honours in Politics, Philosophy and Economics. His research paper, ‘ The Occupy Movement: a Polanyian Analysis of Contemporary Dissent’, was published as a working paper for the Centre of Social Science Research in December 2012. He has since moved into the world of Enterprise Development and is currently working as a Business Intern at Fetola.

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