Engineer & Scientist vacancy reduction: interventions by Department of Water & Sanitation, Engineering Council of South Africa, Water Research Commission, Energy & Water SETA, Rand Water Academy

Water and Sanitation

12 August 2015
Chairperson: Mr M Johnson (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) together with the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA) and Rand Water briefed the Committee on their interventions to reduce the vacancy rate of engineers and scientists in the Water Sector. The South African Youth Council was also in attendance.

Apologies were received from the Deputy Minister of Water and Sanitation, who was unable to attend the meeting. The Energy SETA was also invited, together with the South African Local Government Association (SALGA), however they were not able to attend.

Some of the strategies the DWS employed to recruit engineers and scientists were head hunting and a Water Skills Partnership Forum (Skills Exchange) with the private sector, intergovernmental exchange programmes and international sourcing. In total, the DWS had 40 vacant posts for engineers and 28 vacant posts for scientists. The DWS would also work with the Department of Public Service and Administration (DPSA) to develop an incentive programme for keeping newly registered engineers within the water sector. Currently the department has a total number of 295 Graduate trainees in the Learning Academy, of which 159 are Scientists and 136 Engineers. These graduate trainees would be absorbed into funded vacant entry-level posts within the next five years.

Other than registration, the role of the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA) included identification of engineering work, recognition of voluntary associations, international benchmarking and advising the Minister of Public Works on matters of engineering interest. There were three categories to registration: Professional Engineer, Candidate Engineer and specific categories such as for inspectors. Currently, 52% of the country’s engineers were not registered with ECSA; the reason for this high number of unregistered engineers was because the term “engineering” had not been well defined and protected. Also professional registration was not compulsory in terms of the Act. Employer bodies were not compelled to employ registered engineers. Through amendment of the Professional Engineering Act ECSA would seek to have compulsory registration for all engineers who participate in the public space.

Rand Water’s skills development programme for the youth was made up of apprenticeship, learnerships, and internships for graduates and an external bursary programme. Currently, Rand Water employed 356 learners and graduates through the programme; of this 174 were females and 182 were males. The Rand Water Academy, which was sponsored by National Treasury through the Infrastructure Skills Development Grant, in the first year and second years there was an intake of 120 graduates and 16 graduates in the third intake. All the graduates were placed in various municipalities. Another initiative by the Rand Water Academy was the Rural Development Graduate Internship Programme, to date 40 graduates have received training, the graduates were placed in various Rand Water business units while some were placed in classroom-based training. Some of Rand Water’s projects included the Mpumalanga Skills Audit where the Premier requested that a skills audit be conducted in the municipalities.

Some of the questions raised by Members were: How was the Engineering Council established as a regulatory body; who oversaw the body? How was the Council structured? What was the DWS’s retention strategy? Were  there plans in place for the Engineering Council to attract professionals into rural areas by possibly introducing a rural allowance, following the likes of the Department of Health? Were there any plans to amend the Act and to provide a broader definition of the term “engineering”? What was the outcome of discussions between the Department of Public Service and Administration and Treasury around remuneration? Why were the Department of Labour and the Department of Higher Education not invited to provide information on what they were doing to harness homegrown skills? How fast was the sector losing engineers to retirement and how was this gap being addressed? Has the DWS considered a national skills audit and were these figures available? Was South Africa providing training for hydraulic engineering? If so, this was a concern because the Cuban engineers were brought in because according to the Minister South Africa apparently did not have its own hydraulic engineers. Did any of the country’s universities provide a qualification in hydraulic engineering? Why were departments still working in silos, and what was being done to address this? What were the benefits of registering with the Council? Would it not be of benefit to the country if all engineers were registered with the Council so as to keep accurate records of the number of skills was within the country? What was the government’s long term plans for addressing the shortages of engineers within the country?

Meeting report

The Chairperson said the country had a 2030 vision that was set out in the National Development Plan (NDP). The plan sought to address unemployment, inequality and poverty. Government therefore had to devise a roadmap of how to get there and skills were pivotal to achieving those targets. Apologies were received from the Deputy Minister of Water and Sanitation, who was unable to attend the meeting. The Energy SETA was also invited, together with the South African Local Government Association (SALGA), however they were not able to attend.

Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) - Interventions to reduce the vacancy rate of engineering and scientist as well as skills development
Ms Margaret-Ann Diedricks, Director General: DWS, said the purpose of the meeting was to propose a strategy and a way forward to fill the funded vacant engineering and scientist posts within the DWS. Currently the DWS had a total of 722 OSD posts of which 68 were funded vacant posts of engineers and scientists. The branch with the highest number of engineers and scientists was Operational Integration with a total of 286 filled posts, followed by Planning and Information with 173 posts and National Water Resources Infrastructure (NWRI) with 164 posts. Operational Integration had 19 vacant posts for engineers and 10 for scientists, while Planning and Information branch had 13 vacant posts for scientists and 3 vacant posts for engineers. The NWRI branch had vacant posts for18 engineers and 18 scientists. In total, the DWS had 40 vacant posts for engineers and 28 vacant posts for scientists.

Some of the strategies to recruit engineers and scientists were:

•Head hunting: The Department has sourced the expertise of External Service Provider to assist with head hunting of key posts.

•Water Skills Partnership Forum (Skills Exchange Programme): The Department will explore a skills exchange partnership with the private sector (as part of companies corporate social responsibility programmed). This will at short intervals augment the competencies and skills in the Department.

•Intergovernmental Skills Exchange: The DWS would spearhead a high-level skills exchange programme with other Departments for a fixed period.

•International Sourcing: Encourage government to source identified critical internationally, mainly through existing bilateral and multilateral agreements

Other strategies included hosting a water careers open day in June 2016, increasing the foot-print of the Learning Academy and working with the Department of Public Service and Administration (DPSA) to develop an incentive programme for keeping newly registered engineers within the water sector. Currently the Department has a total number of 295 Graduate trainees in the Learning Academy, of which 159 are Scientists and 136 Engineers. These graduate trainees would be absorbed into funded vacant entry-level posts within the next five years. The DWS would also proactively advertise posts for retirement three months before the actual date of exit of an engineer and scientist incumbent.

Presentation: Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA)
Mr Sipho Madonsela, Chief Executive Officer: ECSA, explained that ECSA was regulated by the Engineering Profession Act of 2000. Members of the Council were required to register with the Council to be regulated. Other than registration, the role of ECSA included identification of engineering work, recognition of voluntary associations, international benchmarking and advising the Minister of Public Works on matters of engineering interest. There were three categories to registration: Professional Engineer, Candidate Engineer and specific categories such as for inspectors.

Currently, 52% of the country’s engineers were not registered with ECSA and about 38% of engineers were registered with the Council as top end professionals. The reason why there was such a high number of unregistered engineers was because the term “engineering” had not been well defined and protected, and professional registration was not compulsory in terms of the Act. Employer bodies were not compelled to employ registered engineers. ECSA did not practice engineering or intervene in areas of practice but only played a regulatory role to those who practiced. ECSA did not have influence in areas of practice, and the Council did not discriminate any application for registration. Through amendment of the Act ECSA would seek to have compulsory registration for all engineers who participate in the public space. Through legislation ECSA should have authority over institutions that depend on professional engineering services. ECSA’s vision was to expand the scope of registered engineers. The Council would also engage National Treasury and other departments, to employ only competent engineers.

Presentation: Rand Water
Mr Percy Sechemane, Chief Executive Officer, Rand Water, said Rand Water’s skills development programme for the youth was made up of apprenticeship, learnerships, internships for graduates and an external bursary programme. Currently, Rand Water employed 356 learners and graduates through the programme, of which 174 were females and 182 were males. Rand Water offered bursaries for the following programmes:

Commerce and Management
Engineering and Science
Finance and Procurement
Human Resource and Information Technology
Water Quality
Matric

The Rand Water Academy, which was sponsored by National Treasury through the Infrastructure Skills Development Grant, currently had an intake of 120 graduates who had tertiary qualifications. These were for the first and second intakes. The duration of the programme was three years, and it included apprenticeships (30), engineering (20), process control (40), and water quality generalists (30). The third intake had a total intake of 16 graduates: seven for electrical apprenticeships and nine for engineering (chemical, civil, electrical and mechanical). All the graduates were placed in various municipalities. Another initiative by the Rand Water Academy was the Rural Development Graduate Internship Programme, to date 40 graduates received training and were placed in various Rand Water business units and some placed in classroom based training. Some of Rand Water’s projects included the Mpumalanga Skills Audit where the Premier requested that a skills audit be conducted in the municipalities. The sponsor was Rand Water. Another project was the FIPAG Academy in Mozambique sponsored by the United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

South African Youth Council (SAYC)
Mr Vuyo Yekani, Provincial Coordinator Western Cape, SAYC apologised that they had not prepared a presentation. The document would be drafted and sent through to the Committee at a later stage.

Discussion:
The Chairperson said other stakeholders were invited but could not attend the meeting; these included the Energy and Water SETA and the South African Local Government Association (SALGA). All stakeholders agreed that there was a need for more engineering skills, and training young people. How was the Engineering Council established as a regulatory body, and who oversaw the body? How was the Council structured? He asked about Rand Water’s skills audit; would it be a skills audit of all skills throughout the country. There were a number of unemployed people in the country and there needed to be a way to incentivise people as a way to address this. The DWS needed to provide the Committee with an update on which training programmes the DWS was involved in and what happened with the engineers that received training from the Department. According to the DWS, after training, the private sector absorbed these skills. What was the DWS’s retention strategy?

Ms H Kekana (ANC) asked whether there were plans in place to attract professionals into rural areas by possibly introducing a rural allowance, following the likes of the Department of Health. According to the Professional Engineering Act of 2000, there was no definition of “engineer”; were there any plans to amend the Act and to provide a broader definition of the term?

Ms T Baker (DA) said the DWS’s response was disappointing. Remuneration was such a huge issue and the DWS could not continue to cite that as an explanation for failure to attract professionals into the Department. What was the outcome of discussions between the Department of Public Service and Administration and Treasury around remuneration? Clearly not much effort was made in this regard. The retention of skills was a major issue and the sector needed to look into incentivising working in rural areas because that was where the greatest need was. Youth unemployment was around 52%, even though graduate unemployment was slightly less. Why were the Department of Labour and the Department of Higher Education not invited to provide information on what they were doing to harness homegrown skills? The country could not keep importing engineering skills. She asked the Engineering Council what the average age of engineers was, how fast the sector was losing engineers to retirement, and how this gap was being addressed? The Rand Water skills audit could not be used as a benchmark for the skills shortages across the country because each province had varying issues that contributed to the skills shortages in that particular province. Had the DWS considered a national skills audit and were these figures available?

Mr L Basson (DA) asked whether the Engineering Council still used the Washington Accord as a benchmark for qualifications. Was South Africa providing training for hydraulic engineering? If so, this was a concern because the Cuban engineers were brought in because according to the Minister South Africa apparently did not have its own hydraulic engineers. Did any of the country’s universities provide a qualification in hydraulic engineering?

Mr T Makondo (ANC) said the objectives of the National Development Plan (NDP) would not be achieved if the country did not have skills. Why were departments still working in silos, and what was being done to address this? The country needed to build its own skills capacity rather than to rely on importing skills. According to the Engineering Council it was not compulsory for an engineer to register with them and this was unfortunate. What were the benefits of registering with the Council? Around 52% of engineers were not registered with the Council, why was the number so high and was it not a concern? Would it not be of benefit to the country if all engineers were registered with the Council so as to keep accurate records of the number of skills within the country? According to the DWS there were 68 vacant positions within the Department, were these for funded posts?

Mr M Shelembe (NFP) asked what were some of the incentives for attracting good engineers to the public sector? How much were the Cuban engineers being paid, and for how long would they be in the country? What were the government’s long term plans for addressing the shortages of engineers within the country?

Ms J Maluleke (ANC) asked where the trainees did their practicals? The internship term should be extended to increase the graduate’s work experiences. She suggested the DWS look into entering into contracts with trainee graduates that would compel the graduates to remain and work for the DWS after their training has been completed. This would be a way to deal with the problem of skills being taken up by the private sector after having received training from the Department. 

Ms M Khawula (EFF) asked Rand Water about which rural areas were provided with training. Were these trainees provided with proper employment afterwards? The trend of employing people from outside the country instead of capacitating South African youth was not acceptable.

Mr B Mashile (ANC) said he was an engineer and a member of the South African Council for Engineers. The issue of skills in the public service was a continuous one, and it would remain to be a problem area for as long as the issue of remuneration was not addressed. As long as the issues around urban versus rural areas were not addressed skills shortages would continue to be a challenge. People generally preferred urban settings more than rural areas for a number of reasons. According to the NDP, government had a responsibility to facilitate the acquisition of critical skills, therefore there was a need to differentiate between scarce skills and critical skills. Currently the question of importing skills related to the current infrastructure development objectives of government. There were serious needs for certain skills and in most cases the country did not have these skills currently. This did not take away from government’s responsibilities to provide the necessary training and mentorship for developing the country’s skills capacity. How frequent did Rand Water engage the Engineering Council? A report was issues on the number and needs of engineers; the document was distributed to all departments, had DWS seen this report and what was the Department’s response to it?

The Chairperson said the silo approach between departments was a result of performance agreements. Departments in most cases did not have the time to run each item past each department. This was a matter that needed to be escalated to Cabinet because a lot of public money was not being used optimally. The rising number of training academies being established was a matter that needed to be closely monitored, because most were not properly accredited.

Ms Diedricks responded that there were a number of sector departments that were implicated in the questions raised by Members, one being the Department of Higher Education and Training, which provided graduate training for engineering. The Department of Higher Education needed to ensure that a sufficient number of engineers was being produced by the system. Minister Blade Nzimande appeared before the Committee and indicated that the Department was not meeting the targets. In terms of the pool that other departments were working from, there was already a shortage.

With regard to remuneration, the response of the public sector, and the Department of Public Service (DPSA) and Administration was to try and retain scarce and critical skills by way of occupational specific dispensation. Whether or not this was adequate and whether such discussions have been initiated further with the DPSA was another issue. National Treasury would react to the DPSA’s directives because the Minister of DPSA made such decisions. This was an ongoing issue. The DWS was in a similar position not so long ago when the DWS was looking for Chief Financial Officers, where the Department was asking Chartered Accountants to fill these positions but government could not compete with the private sector. It would take a very long time for government to flood the public sector with such skills so they were no longer scarce skills.

Of the 68 vacancies within the DWS, 10 were for higher order registration requirements such as Chief Engineers. It took a very long time to qualify as a Chief Engineer. The DWS had a programme for training candidate engineers; the problem was that the DWS in most cases had to extend the candidacy because the board examinations were very difficult. The DWS could not compete with the private sector on matters relating to remuneration and retention packages. The directive came from the DPSA. The retention of skills was not just about remuneration; it was also about becoming an employer of choice. People needed to be happy in the organisations they worked for. Sometimes the graduates the DWS received were not ideal, and they were not employable. Departments needed to work in an integrated fashion with training academies to ensure synergy rather than everyone competing for space. There would be a joint strategic session with all water boards and all entities within the DWS. This had never happened in the sector before.

With regard to the issue of absorbing interns, the DWS was working towards developing entrepreneurs. The DWS was also working with the dti to ensure that the department came on board to facilitate start-ups. The DWS would be recruiting from local government, creating job opportunities in those specific areas. The other related sector was the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform; the DWS was not doing enough to develop rural areas. Graduates always migrated into urban areas because there were no employment opportunities in rural areas. The 35 Cuban engineers were placed in rural areas and none of the Cubans were occupying executive positions, they were on an exchange programme. The Cubans were in the country for two years, and their remuneration was at about R 500 000 per annum. Cuba had some of the most excellent infrastructure and South Africa was benefiting from the transfer of skills.

Mr Reshoketswe Moloto, Acting Director, DWS said urban/ rural dynamics was a real issue. People were very reluctant to work in rural areas and this was an issue that needed to be addressed. He agreed that the DPSA needed to be engaged on matters relating to remuneration. He said the DWS had a high retention level for scientists. The problem was often an individual registered as a professional engineer expected a high salary, above the rate that the DWS could afford to pay. He agreed that there was a need for convergence when dealing with training academies.

Mr Madonsela responded to the question around how the Engineering Council was structured; the Council was established according to the Professional Engineers Act. With regard to addressing youth unemployment, the Council established a trust that contributed to providing bursaries to students, among many other initiatives. As for the definition of “engineer” he said the Council was planning on amending the Act. The current legislation was outdated and had a lot of issues. The sector was growing with about 2000 engineers per year across all categories. Currently the Council had about 46 000 engineers registered with it, and it was hoped that the number would continually increase. Some of the engineers left the sector for a number of reasons; some passed away, some voluntarily walked away from the Council because there were no incentives for being a member while others simply retired. A number of people registered their candidacy with the Council because they hoped that this would give them access to better opportunities; however this was not always the case.

The Washington Accord was an educational accord. The accord recognised the educational programmes of various countries, providing accreditation. A number of countries had signed this. Out of the 46 000 engineers in the country about 2300 of these were foreigners and only two Cuban engineers were registered with the Engineering Council. He would not be able to comment on the Minister’s response. One benefit of registering with the Council was that of mobility, engineers registered with the Council could work anywhere where the Council’s accreditation was recognised. The flow of engineers inside and outside the country was a very critical issue because such boundaries were artificial. Most of the companies in South Africa, the “Big Five” specifically were not owned in South Africa, they were owned internationally.

Mr Yekani appreciated the various commitments made in dealing with youth issues, however one issue which seemed to be left out was it seemed that very little was being done to address the issue of drop outs especially around students in scarce skills. He suggested that a model such as that adopted by social work and in nursing where students received accreditation at a certain point during their academic period. For example, if an engineering student decided to drop out during their third year, for whatever the reasons, they should receive accreditation as an artisan or a NQF qualification. The absence of graduates in the engineering space rendered the Engineering Council useless. It was therefore important that the Council develop its own pipeline. At some point government needed to do away with the notion that there were graduates who were unemployable because this was indictment not only on government but on institutions of higher learning. Internship opportunities offered by government did not enhance the employability of the graduates. The Youth Council had under its ambits the South African Graduate Development Programme, which dealt with issues relating to graduate employment, and enhancing the employability of graduates. This association had a database of all unemployed graduates, however the challenge was to find a suitably qualified graduate to apply for a government job but not having enough experience. This was something government needed to look into.

The Chairperson said there needed to be a workshop taking the discussions forward with various stakeholders, such as the Department of Higher Education and Training and the Department of Labour. On the issue of unemployed youth and the import of skills the rationality of the argument needed to be looked into. The issue of the skills audit was a matter that resided in a number of departments. Suggestions made around remuneration and incentives should be taken into consideration. The issues around importing skills should not be confined only to Cuba but the discussions should rather be broadened.

The meeting was adjourned.

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