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OPINION: SA's young engineers lack solid support

Earlier this year it was announced that the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) and the Free State government had hired engineers from Cuba to "assist South Africa". Despite the public outcry and the country's high unemployment rate, these two institutions decided to back their ethically and patriotically unbecoming decision with statements that have angered, disappointed and upset some hard-working engineers, technologists and technicians, including myself.

The development has also been met with anger by our parents who have worked difficult jobs, demeaning jobs, and late-night jobs in order to get their sons or daughters educated in engineering, only to have the qualification seemingly thrown back at them.

Let me back up a bit and explain my sentiments.

The Engineering Council of South Africa (Ecsa) regulates South Africa's engineering industry and is aligned to the Washington Accord (WA). This accord was signed in 1989 and is an international agreement among bodies responsible for accrediting engineering programmes. It recognises the substantial equivalency of programmes accredited by those bodies and recommends that graduates of programmes accredited by any of the signatory bodies be recognised by the other bodies as having met the academic requirements for entry to the practice of engineering. Ecsa is one of these signatory bodies.

I mean this with the utmost respect, but this is just wrong. Don't get me wrong, the Cubans have great minds in engineering but why can't we just develop our own engineers… But wait, we have!

I am a product of the South African schooling system with a Master's degree in engineering management, and there are large numbers of others like me. There are engineering graduates who do not have jobs to go to.

There seem to be some officials who once heard that there was a shortage of engineers in the country and they have chosen to hang on to that idea for too long.

But the way I see it, the problem is not that there is a lack of engineers in the country. The problem is the great engineering minds (and let's be frank and admit that most of them in South Africa are white) are not being tasked to mentor and educate the young.

Consulting Engineers South Africa (Cesa) is a non-profit organisation which strives to improve the quality of life for all South Africans through the promotion of engineering excellence through education and community development.

It has appealed to government that its member firms are currently only being 60% utilised and have 40% spare capacity while they are waiting for the government to bring projects on stream.

The money used for the Cubans, who are not even allowed to sign as referees for Ecsa candidates, could have been used on projects to develop our South Africa's young engineers.

To become a registered professional engineer, technologist or technician, one has to gather experience, which must be recorded in the form of reports. The reports must, in detail, indicate the work carried out by an individual over a period of time. These reports must also be signed by referees, persons conversant with the council's requirements for registration as set out in Ecsa's policy statement. Cuba doesn't use the WA and is unfamiliar with Ecsa, so now the question is how were the candidates destined for South Africa selected?

There is a Xhosa saying that says "inyathi ibuzwa kwabaphambili", which loosely translated means "wisdom is gained over time from the wise". The wise are the mostly white and some black experienced engineers who are shunted aside because they are old before they are able to transfer their knowledge to the young, mostly black, engineers and technologists who are recent graduates.

It is not about race, but rather the mistake government is making by letting the older knowledgeable and experienced engineers be pushed out or they resign or retire before knowledge transfer has occurred.

I grew up in East London and after graduation I spent the following two years in internships at two government entities, where I initially hoped to gain the experience I needed to follow through with my dreams. But that was not the case.

Based on my experiences, I believe that the internships on which our government spends a large sum of money are ineffective compared to what they actually should be. The internships in government institutions are not monitored or refereed by registered professional engineers and the experienced engineers are not guided nor obliged to monitor and ensure quality internships.

The industry is flooded with young driven engineers who need to be guided and mentored to be able to register as professionals. Our government should focus on using funds and working together with institutions such as Ecsa, Cesa, UJ, Wits, TUT and CPUT to create a database of young engineers who can resolve the service delivery problems raised by provincial and local governments.

Khaya Madiba is a master in engineering management and an engineering structural technologist.

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