State of the skilled labour force: an engineer’s perspective

November 20th, 2013, Published in Articles: Vector


by Brian Turner, retired engineer

The powers that be cannot seem to understand why we have a major shortage of skilled people in South Africa. Unfortunately, this is not something that has occurred overnight but rather started back in the 1980s.

Brian Turner

Brian Turner

Take, for instance, the certificated engineer. Before 1980, factories, for example, were governed by the Factories and Building Works Act. The certificated engineer was appointed under regulation C1, which was similar to the present appointment under GMR 2 except that, back in those days, the engineer was a respected member of the senior management team and of society.

In the factory environment, certificated engineers occupied a place at the very top of the management structure where they had a say in all aspects of running the business. Theirs was a position where they had a very high level of responsibility but, coupled with that, they had the authority to carry out those responsibilities.

In time, “legal beagles” and “number crunchers” started entering positions of power in the factories and industry, and the tone started to change from that of technical control to one of profit at all costs. At this time the Factories Act was being phased out and the Machines and Occupational Safety Act introduced, which further diluted the engineer’s authority. It must be understood that the vast majority of certificated engineers originated from a pool of artisans who had aspirations of improving themselves by becoming engineers.

In the 1980s, I was in charge of the training department at the company where I was employed. At that stage, there were 119 apprentices employed by the company, ranging in trades from carpenters to fitters and turners, boilermakers/platers, diesel mechanics, electricians, etc.

The company policy was to have a succession of first, second and third-year apprentices. While it was understood that not all the apprentices would be employed by the company once they qualified as artisans, the idea was that they were being trained for industry in general. At that stage, the government had an incentive scheme in place whereby companies who had registered training centres and who trained apprentices were reimbursed a portion of their costs of training.  At the beginning of each year, when the new intake of apprentices was done, there were more applications than available positions.

To be an artisan was considered a very good move. At that stage, our company had a fully-equipped training centre. Once government withdrew the incentive scheme, apprentice training was eventually stopped and most of the equipment in the training centre donated to a privately-operated training centre and to the local technical college. Today, this same company does not employ a single apprentice.

Unfortunately, the attitude changed and it became general opinion that only people who could not cope at school became apprentices. It was considered demeaning to get one’s hands dirty.  The buzzwords were “get an education”, so school leavers were directed to go to university. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with a university education, the result was that youngsters who might have been more suited to a trade were no longer trained in any technical field.

The pool of eligible candidates for certificated engineers was reduced greatly because of this. To rectify the matter, the powers-that-be determined that technicons would offer a course, on completion of which only a minimum practical experience was required to be eligible to write the “government ticket”. Regrettably, this has all added to the loss of practical knowledge and skills. The standard has been lowered consistently, apparently to help more candidates pass. This, in turn, lowers even further the level of competency.

A further complicating factor was the introduction of the so-called “learnership” system where no apprenticeship contract was entered into. This caused further confusion among people wanting to learn a trade, and resulted in many opting for some other form of employment. Then there was the introduction of the Sectional Education and Training Authorities (SETAs) who were charged with driving the training needs of the various industries. These have failed miserably, with very little assistance provided to those employers prepared to train technical staff. At some of these SETAs, things are so bad that people who have passed their trade tests cannot get their trade test certificates. This renders them unemployable as qualified artisans.  This has all added to the reluctance among possible candidates to enter the artisan route.

To exacerbate the problem, the Machinery and Occupational Safety (MOS) Act of 1983 was replaced with the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act. This legislation makes evermore reference to SANS standards which automatically become part of the legislation. As these standards are continually “updated” to make them workable, the engineer has to continually keep abreast of “new” legislation at a cost as these SANS standards are only available for purchase. Instead, the engineer should be making the working environment safe and healthy and should ensure that all the equipment functions optimally. Typically, when things tend to go wrong, the legislators introduce even more legislation in the belief that, if something is laid down in law, it must work.

At this stage, with all the various labour and industrial legislation governing the various sectors, no one can be blamed for not wanting to enter the technical field, let alone employ additional staff. There are no incentives to train technical people, the FET technical colleges don’t appear to have a consistent curriculum and the overall environment does not encourage people to acquire the technical skills which the country needs so desperately.

As mentioned before, the company where I was employed has all but ceased to exist because the products they manufactured had become too expensive compared to similar products imported from India.

Government’s BRICS connection has caused it to turn a blind eye on “sweatshop” production methods in India. Complete product can be imported from that country more economically than mining the raw materials and manufacturing the product locally. One reason for this is the present labour laws which businesses are subject to. This has brought about an under-productive labour force, especially considering the ever-increasing wage demands.

The result is that a former top 100 company has not only stopped producing technically competent people, but has also had to reduce its staff contingent by hundreds of people.

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  • Ernst Smith

    Thanks Mr. Turner for a very comprehensive and in my opinion accurate summary of the current state of affairs. The part I was looking forward to – your expectations on what the future holds for South African industry if we continue along this path…?