South Africans expect to drive on safe roads, cross bridges safely, and have clean, drinkable water flowing from their taps. They expect the lights to go on when they flip a switch and be able to go online at any time. These, and other modern facilities, are only made possible by the engineers and technicians who design, construct, install and maintain them.
One of the principal reasons for poor service delivery and failing infrastructure at municipal level in South Africa is the fact that of the 257 municipalities in the country, only 55 have engineers leading their technical departments, according to COGTA. It is concerning that people who are entrusted with managing public infrastructure lack the basic competencies and don’t understand the roles played by built environment professionals.
The unfortunate reality is that South Africa has too few of these highly skilled individuals to meet the needs of the country. A few years ago, it was reported that South Africa had one such individual per 3000 citizens, compared to more developed countries which had one for every 200 citizens.
This ratio is only going to get worse unless something is done urgently to fix the country’s education system so that more young people receive requisite early childhood development and the subsequent grounding in mathematics and science from basic education levels.
We need a programme which will enable and encourage young people to pursue a career in engineering. We also need to help people see the value engineers add to society, especially in the provision of basic services.
While some effort to address this issue has been made over the past few years, statistics on national trends in mathematics performance between 2011 and 2018 show no change in the percentage of students who wrote Grade 12 mathematics exams.
Although millions of rand have been invested to try to address the problem of poor mathematics exam results, over the past eight years schools have not managed to get more than 45% of learners to the stage of being able to write the Grade 12 mathematics exams. Of those, only about 4% achieve marks above 70%.
While this may get someone into a university’s engineering degree programme, there is a slim chance of that individual’s successful graduation without extensive support and assistance. A lot has to be done to dramatically increase this percentage so that appropriately skilled experts could be appointed to oversee and maximise the sustainability of national and municipal infrastructure the country needs to support sustainable economic growth.
It is a fallacy to believe that fast-tracking the professional registration process will make up for this shortage, as our problem is that we have failed to invest adequately in teaching children the basic principles of mathematics and science, and have thereby failed to “grow our own timber”, which is robbing us now of the “feedstock” of well-versed, trainable individuals we need for a career in professional engineering.
Clearly a lot has to be done to change this situation. Using the same approach which has been used over the last eight years will not change anything. We cannot expect different results if we keep doing the same thing year after year.
We have a choice: We can either address the pipeline issues by improving the way in which young children are taught the principles of mathematics and science or resign ourselves to having to import people with the skills we need. A third alternative is never having the number of graduate engineers that the country needs, with all of the associated risks.
Engineers are, by nature and as a result of their training, problem solvers. This is a call to engineers to promote their professions and encourage educationalists to develop systems which will create more engineers for the future development of South Africa.
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