South Africa’s lack of engineering skills is once again under the spotlight, with the ongoing “brain drain” a challenge for the country.
While engineering skills are in high demand locally, they are also one of the most exportable skills for those looking for employment in almost any country – which could be the root of the local shortage.
The exportability of these skills is echoed in the Engineering Council of South Africa’s database, which indicates that around one-third of the country’s engineering graduates have worked abroad in the last 40 years. A large number of degrees offered by South Africa’s top universities are in line with the Washington Accord, which guarantees international recognition and paves the way for employment overseas.
“With the high global demand for skilled engineers, we see many young engineers finding favourable employment abroad,” says Lyndy van den Barselaar, MD of Manpower SA. “Fortunately, we are also seeing many of them return to South Africa, especially in the wake of the global financial crisis since 2008.
“This is due to a number of factors,” she adds. “Firstly, many international companies have been cutting back on their overseas employment, as there are often additional associated costs, such as housing and schooling for the expatriate family.
“Because of the skills shortage in South Africa, companies are also offering lucrative employment packages, making local employment attractive. There has been a marked increase in the return of skilled expats as well as an increase in the number of people choosing to stay,” she explains.
These returning engineers now have the advantage of a South African education and familiarity with local conditions, paired with international experience. International experience is especially valuable when performed within massive multinational organisations, as engineers are exposed to the scope and vastness of projects not always seen locally.
Those who are looking for overseas experience do not necessarily need to look beyond the continent, as some of the biggest developments in the world are currently taking place in Africa. South African engineers find themselves in high demand because they are English-speaking, hardworking, familiar with the conditions, and skilled in a number of disciplines. The fact that they are travelling along the African longitude to work means that time zone issues are minimised in most cases.
“Unfortunately, we have seen that companies are often averse to taking on young engineering graduates because of the time, cost and training associated with acquiring the necessary on-the-job skills,” Van den Barselaar says. “This might be encouraging young engineers to gain experience elsewhere, as those with international exposure may be at an advantage. We do, however, hope to see more investment in internal development in the future, as the effects of the recession dissipate.”
The Department of Higher Education and Training releases an annual list of the top 100 jobs in high demand in the country and singled out engineering as one of the positions with the biggest shortfall between supply and demand. In fact, 28 of the occupations on the list are engineering jobs, with the top three scarce skills being electrical engineer, civil engineer and mechanical engineer.
Further supporting this, the Manpower Talent Shortage Survey has identified engineers as the most difficult positions for South African employers to fill for the past nine years, since the survey was launched.
“These statistics should encourage the youth to consider an education and a career in engineering, and should encourage local engineering firms to offer employment and training opportunities to engineering graduates in order to bridge the gap and avoid the ‘brain drain’ that has been experienced over the past few years,” says Van den Barselaar.