South Africans are emigrating with some of the scarcest and most valuable skills

 ·19 Jul 2019

A large number of South African engineers are leaving the country for jobs abroad.

Speaking to 702, Consulting Engineers SA CEO Christopher Campbell says that hundreds of his organisation’s members have left the country over the past three years.

“Between 2015 and 2018 there has been a decline of around 11% of professional staff, and during the same period there has been a decline of 17% for technical non-professional jobs,” he said.

Campbell says this is extremely worrying as engineering has been identified as one of the 10 scarcest skills in the country.

“Electrical engineers are sitting at number 6 (out of 10), civil engineers at 7 and mechanical engineers at 8.”

“If we take the relative numbers then historically it will be slanted by the number of civil engineers leaving which is one of the oldest disciplines, followed by electrical engineers.  A lot would depend on the demand and opportunity that exists in other countries.

It’s an open secret that there are recruitment companies from Australia searching for engineers because their economy is on the growth path.”

Why are they leaving?

Campbell said that there are a number of reasons that engineers are leaving, including a number of major systemic issues.

These issues mean that people don’t want to go into engineering as a profession, while people who are already qualified engineers no longer want to remain in the profession, he said.

“The public sector seems to insist on hiring engineers at the lowest cost and we don’t equate that with the output of what we get out of that.”

He added that this problem also impacted the private sector.

“The value which is attributed to the service offered by professional engineers has been so commoditised that I may find situations where a client asks me to discount my fee.

“We don’t do that in the medical profession, we don’t do that in the legal profession and we should never do that in the engineering profession.”

He added that while the public sector may pay high salaries to retain engineers, these engineers often do not have the necessary level of skills to work in this sector.

This has been exacerbated by a lack of mentors and senior members in the industry.

Other issues

According to a report released by the South African Institution Of Civil Engineering (SAICE),  despite 68% of engineering professionals indicated a willingness to work in the public sector, specific issues remain that prevent engineering professionals from joining the public sector.

These include:

  • Over-politicisation of infrastructure departments;
  • Diminished decision making roles of technocrats;
  • Lack of systems, processes and structures for efficient administration;
  • Lack of training, development and career paths;
  • Unwarranted interference of HR and Finance divisions in the work of infrastructure engineering professionals.

“While government continually speaks of its commitment to the National Development Plan, the professionalisation of the public sector and placing emphasis on job creation and infrastructure development, there’s been virtually no positive outcome of this commitment,” the SAICE said.

SAICE acting CEO Steven Kaplan said that the brain drain happening in the industry is devastating, and is costing the country a lot of money and resources to produce world-class engineers, only to lose them because they can’t find work.

He said this happening in a country where they’re needed the most is a travesty.

Read: South Africa in talks to get visa-free access to New Zealand and other countries

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