The low number of entry-level professionals in engineering and IT is aggravating the shortage of critical skills needed to drive economic growth and boost employment.

“It’s vital to soak up unemployment, particularly among the youth, and job creation depends on a robust economy,” says Sandra Burmeister, CEO of the Landelahni Recruitment Group. “Boosting the skills pipeline is one of the best ways to generate growth and address ballooning unemployment. Each skilled professional has the capacity to create jobs on an exponential basis.

“Currently key skills are sorely lacking, with an estimated shortage of 800 000 skilled workers across senior management, the professions and technical occupations. Moreover, the Landelahni Graduate Survey 2011 shows that the number of graduates in core disciplines such as engineering and information technology (IT) is not increasing rapidly enough to meet the country’s development requirements. The high fall-out rate, with only one in seven engineering and computer students completing their tertiary education, compounds the problem.

“We need to build our pipeline of skills, particularly when seen in the context of a global skills shortage and Africa demand. Africa’s expenditure on infrastructure projects such as electricity, water, information and telecommunications technology and transport and logistics is expected to reach more than US$1- trillion over the next 10 years. As investment on the continent grows, so South Africa is at risk of losing its skilled professionals to more robust economies.”

According to the Landelahni survey, enrolment in universities and universities of technology has increased somewhat over the past 12 years, but graduation rates remain low.

Engineering enrolments doubled from 30 000 in 1998 to 59 454 in 2009. However, engineering graduates barely reached 8 375 in 2009, of which 4 135 received university degrees and the remainder certificates or diplomas. “This is as a consequence of the low graduation rate, which has averaged 14% over the period,” says Burmeister. “This compares with a rising graduation rate which has now reached 38% in most developed countries.

“It is good to see that more women are entering the engineering professions – with female engineering graduates up more than sixfold from up from 330 in 1998 to 2 112 in 2009. Black graduates have increased fourfold to 6 204 over the same period.”

In the case of IT professionals, enrolments in computer science and data processing in universities and universities of technology have more than trebled from 9 015 in 1998 to 33 600 in 2009. However the graduation rate dropped from 23.1% to 13.4%, with only 4 509 computer professionals graduating in 2009, of which 1 752 received university degrees and the remainder certificates or diplomas.

“Taken overall, these figures represent marginal growth,” says Burmeister. “They do not in any way reflect the momentum of the IT sector locally or globally. IT skills, in particular, are crucial since IT is a cross-cutting technology that underpins all areas of business.

“Graduates in engineering and IT are not growing fast enough to drive economic growth and generate employment. We should be turning out tens of thousands of new graduates in these disciplines each year.”

Research commissioned by government shows that scores of young people who make it to university drop out due to lack of funding. “We must put massive resources into throughput so that we guard against the high fall-out rate,” says Burmeister.

“As a short-term measure, South Africa plans to import 50 000 skilled workers. But where do we find them and how we can make our country attractive to them, let alone afford to pay them in dollars? Skills development in SA tends to be demand driven and tactical. However, the skills shortage cannot be solved in the short term. It requires co-ordinated long-term strategies from the private sector and the state to ensure adequate funding.”

The National Treasury has acknowledged that, for jobs to be created, the skills required to fill them are also needed. “A better-educated and more highly skilled workforce is the most pressing long-term priority for the economy,” it states in a recent discussion paper.

“Too often, schools and universities are not turning out the skills required by business,” says Burmeister. “There is a critical need for research and accurate information to ensure we have enough of the right kinds of skills. When it comes to increasing scarce skills, the only real long-term solution is to increase the pipeline of entry-level skills into critical areas.”