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Skills. Lost, missing in action (Nov/Dec 2010)

Posted By Chris Reay, Monday, 24 January 2011

So we now have a new pack of Ministers and Deputy Ministers and various other government appointments. At least that may signify an awareness that the performance and delivery have not been acceptable by those that have been removed en masse, but it alternatively may be another bout of jobs for the party favourites. It is a mystery how the selection process works. Is experience in the work area of the ministry one of the metrics for selection? Normally in the process of appointing new resources one would take account of qualifications, experience and a degree of environmental and psychometric fit to the position. Would it be too much to request the President to publish the CVs of the new appointments as well as the performance criteria that will be applied? The last two Ministers of Water Affairs extolled their assurance that all was under control in the water world in SA. Either the public are victims of intentional anti-government sentiment by the media and other exposure platforms about the condition of our water resources, or the Ministers were seriously out of touch with reality. The reader is left to decide on this. I trust the current Minister of Energy is still confident that 10,000GWh per annum of installed renewable energy capacity is achievable by 2013.

In SA right now a most serious problem is a steady decline in the skills across the board and it is not fixed by suddenly declaring OBE to have been a dismal failure. That is certainly a major factor but added to this root cause of the deterioration of maths and science standards at primary and secondary level is the continued loss of useful skills across the full spectrum. In this mix are the skills to set policy and implement strategy (ministers included). A further recent discovery is the parlous state of SA's intellectual property laws. We used to be at the forefront of the modern requirements for addressing and modifying these laws with rapidly changing technology. An observation recently compared the deterioration here with that of our secondary roads. Neglect of maintenance until potholes develop and the journey then becomes unpleasant and in fact dangerous. The reason? Not difficult to find. All the skills and expertise that existed and should be utilized to keep ahead of the game were replaced with politically correct appointments. Replicate this across so many activities and it explains the slide to mediocrity and lack of effective action in so many areas.

Recently someone asked me, why do we want to train up lots of engineering resources into the economy? After all, if supply and demand are to drive the dynamic, then if we as engineering resources want to earn more - our "better life for us” so to speak - then let's keep the numbers down. Why create our own oversupply? My own answer to that is when the industry's growth and the infrastructure's support needs are threatened then I guess we all fall down together. There is a balance and if we do not develop our own resources we will finish up having to import them at astronomical cost. Study the demands of foreign skills in Rand terms especially those that have optimized the benefits of being internationally mobile. You may want to find out what the expats working on many of Eskom's projects are costing SA. Watch and learn, they say. And out there as I mentioned in my last note, we have many early retired SA Engineers, Technologists and Technicians who would be quite capable of using their past experience on power projects and who are being overlooked. The mind boggles.

In our dilemma of creating jobs in the economy without the right human capital, financial capital, while necessary, is not sufficient. Our political manipulation of the skills base leaves us with structural reasons for the increasing consumption over production. Consumption grew at double the rate of production between 1994 and 2008. It now takes 36% fewer workers to produce the same level of output we had in 1960. More automation following world trends, ably assisted here by SA's inflexible labour laws, BEE, poor training and little mentorship. Unskilled unemployment must inevitably go on rising and I believe it will be greater in 2014 than half the present numbers as forecast by government.

It's an intellectual world, the world of the Engineer. There is certainly room for many more of us and we may be the essential catalyst to help reduce this horrific unemployment.

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