South Africa is losing hundreds of engineers and technicians

 ·30 Nov 2022

Key state-owned companies in South Africa have seen hundreds of artisans, technicians and engineers make their exit over the last three years through retirement and resignations – and not enough professionals are being hired to make up for the shortfall.

Responding to a parliamentary Q&A this week, representatives from power utility Eskom and port authority Transnet detailed the number of skills lost to the companies over the last three financial years.

Transnet noted that over the three years, there were a total of 963 resignations and retirements. Split per population group, 606 artisans, 216 technicians and 141 engineers were lost. Meanwhile, only 225 artisans and 204 technicians were hired to replace them (a net loss of 381 and 12, respectively).

More engineers were hired than lost, however, with the company hiring 203 over the period – a net gain of 62.

Eskom, meanwhile, lost a total of 189 artisans, 270 engineers and 232 technicians over the period.

The power utility, which has struggled with a rapidly escalating power crisis over the last decade, did not say how many skilled professionals it hired to replace those lost. However, in a separate response, Eskom noted it had seen a net loss of 6,737 employees over the last ten years.

“During the period in question, 25,317 employees exited the system either through retirement, resignations, or death. The number of employees that Eskom hired is 17,207, of which 10,942 were permanent, and 6,265 were on fixed-term contracts,” Eskom said.

“The higher level of exits as compared to hires was in line with Eskom’s headcount management strategy that came into effect in FY2019, as Eskom aimed to optimise its workforce and escalating manpower costs while retaining prioritised core, critical and scarce skills.

“As at September 2022, Eskom had 39,871 employees, representing a net reduction of 6,737 over 10 years.”

The South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE) recently published its 2022 Infrastructure Report Card (IRC), highlighting a critical shortage of engineering skills in South Africa as one of the key drivers behind the country’s crumbling infrastructure.

The group said that South Africa – especially in public services – faces a debilitating shortage of engineering skills, noting that the country has lost a shocking number of engineers in the civil sector over the last 20 years.

While the country has made strides in transforming the technical sector, seeing an influx of black and female technologists and technicians, this has primarily come at the cost of mainly white male engineers.

This trend has disrupted South Africa’s skills mix – with more technologists and technicians available than engineers – and has deprived new entrants into the engineering field of mentorship and skills transfer, the group said.

According to SAICE, this problem is pronounced and prevalent across the public sector, especially in municipalities.

This situation is something that power utility Eskom has admitted in recent years, where the group attributed much of its current power supply issues to a lack of necessary skills and technical capabilities needed to keep power stations operating.

While it is only one part of the problem facing Eskom, it is significant enough that the group recently launched a crowdsourcing platform specifically directed at targeting these lost skills and beckoning them back into the fold to assist with knowledge transfer and mentorship.

SAICE said that it is not enough to replace lost skills with unrelated technical skills, however.

“Problem-solving skills and depth of knowledge differ from engineers to technologists to technicians, and all infrastructure departments require the correct balance of all three of these professional categories to function well.

“In reality, the proportions of those employed in local government are alarmingly skewed towards the narrower-skilled technicians. As a result, most departments – and especially municipalities – do not have satisfactory technical capacity even when they have increased the technical headcount,” it said.

Read: Mass exodus of engineers in South Africa

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