Engineers have played a crucial role in the industrial development of South Africa but it appears that their importance is declining, largely because of a declining employer demand for their skills. There is a shift in new recruitment towards engineers with postgraduate qualifications.
Where higher education institutions are finding a major challenge is in addressing the growing demand of employers for high quality black and female engineering graduates, a challenge that is made difficult by the legacy of poor quality mathematics and science education in historically black schools.
Even though educational institutions respond relatively quickly to the perceived needs of employers and the profession, sluggish employer demand has resulted in declines in graduate numbers since the beginning of the 1990s. The number of Masters graduates from the universities has increased, but there have been reductions in graduate numbers in Bachelors programmes. More strikingly, there has been a sharp decline in the number of graduates from the range of specialist technikon programmes, from Masters of Technology through BTech to Higher and National Diplomas.
The decline of BTech and Diploma courses may be particularly serious as this further weakens South Africa?s supply of technologists and technicians, vital elements of an overall engineering and industrial system, but already under-represented in the South African economy.
Although higher education institutions do appear to be responsive to the articulated needs of employers, it is apparent that engineering faculties are facing the same demographic challenge as the rest of the higher education (HE) system, as a failure to recruit and retain young researchers and lecturers leaves the staff cohort increasingly elderly.
Engineering faculties are also struggling with the challenge of changing the composition of their learner bodies. The legacy of mathematics and science weakness in schools is still apparent, in spite of recent and major efforts by the Department of Education. This has placed considerable importance on HE institutions’ own programmes for academic support. Though there has been some success in this area, there is still much more to be done.
Changes in demand for engineers
More important than changes in the supply of engineers is the way that demand by employers has changed over the past decade. This is characterised by three factors: an increasing equity dimension to demand; a continuing process to increase the skills of workers; and a significant change in employment patterns within engineering and in other sectors that employ engineers.
Between 1990 and 2000 there was a more than doubling of the proportion of female engineering employment from 5% to 12% of the total. The proportion of black engineers grew in the same period from 10% to 28%. Though both of these increases are dramatic, there is still much room for improvement.
The shift towards greater supply of postgraduates rather than undergraduates or diplomates has already been noted. It is clearly important that South Africa continues to produce and employ high-level engineers, yet does not make good sense for the country to neglect the education and employment of technologists and technicians. This continued shift towards employing fewer, higher skilled workers, is an element of a broader South African labour market distortion which is perhaps a more pressing skills problem than the commonly talked about high-skills shortage.
The employment patterns of engineers have seen dramatic changes since the end of apartheid. There has been a large decline in significant traditional areas of engineering employment such as the military and mining sectors. There has been a shift instead towards electrical and electronic engineering. Within civil engineering, there has been some movement away from large scale construction activities into urban development projects, such as township upgrading. New specialist niches such as mechatronics have emerged. Most strikingly, however, there has been a growing pattern of employment of graduate engineers within the financial sector. It appears that their strong analytical and project management skills are in demand within the financial sector, which is able to outbid traditional employers for competent engineers.
Overall, there is currently little sign that there is a skills shortage of engineers. This is not surprising as engineering is not experiencing rapid growth. Challenges remain in changing the equity profile of the profession and in balancing the need for high quality specialist engineers with a national imperative to address the neglect of technician and technologist education and employment.