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The mad scramble is on again (Mar 2011)

Posted By Chris Reay, Monday, 04 April 2011

It may be safe to announce that the recession insofar as the planning and startup of big projects is over, and this is particularly so in the mining industry. Driven by commodities demand, it is evident by the day that the scramble for the limited capacity of engineering resources with experience in mining and mining engineering is on again. And it is not only in South Africa. Africa, South America, Australia are all in the market seeking the whole range of resources needed for mining projects. Traditionally, the next actions in the supply chain are the manufacturers, fabricators and suppliers of equipment and services. Very good for growth and employment generally. Accompanying all this however will be the pain of finding the right resources and the escalation in remuneration demands across the board. For Engineers, it is your time in the sun.

It represents an odd but understandable dichotomy: we have a serious unemployment problem with little realism prevailing as to how to solve it, mainly because it is the creation of historical stupidity in skills development only exceeded by the stupidity of the belief that we suddenly "create jobs by government decree”. But we have a serious shortage of the right skills and experience. The demographics show that the bulk of the best skills in the project development industry are in the age group 50 upwards right into the 70s. Whilst this phenomenon is replicated to a degree elsewhere in world, it is particularly skewed here in SA by the active "expulsion” of a lot of our talent through affirmative action. Studies show that many of the eligible emigration group, below 45 years of age, have readily left SA for options in foreign lands. A South African is the CEO of BHP Billiton in Australia and there are many SA's in the ranks of the engineering resources right throughout that company. The same applies to many other mining companies in other parts of the world.

The young feedstock to the industry is relatively inexperienced and the problem is that the mentoring capacity is so thin that this is almost non-existent. While local mining is growing, faster development is taking place outside SA, and economists that follow the trends are concerned that SAs' mining regulations, talk of nationalization, nepotism in the ranks etc is diverting investment elsewhere. BHP Billiton has $80 billion to invest in new ventures: none of it is going to SA new mining projects because it considers there are lower risk levels elsewhere.

Where does all this leave us? For my money, living in the engineering resources supply business daily, it needs some concerted and urgent action, not more conferences and debates. Firstly, the practical training and development of graduate engineering resources (Engineers, Technologists and Technicians of all disciplines) need to be able to engage in structured and well managed training schemes including time (6 months) in an engineering boot camp facility that will teach trainees the essential competencies and practicalities of (mechanical) engineering at the pit-face so to speak. Then 2 to 3 years in a structured and fund assisted professional development programme in industry. The PDP now being developed and honed by SAIMechE will be ideal, as it will focus on the 11 competencies required for registration with ECSA and align with the legalisation of identification of engineering work. Industry has to come to the party with proper supervision of the trainees.

As for funding, there may be light at the end of the tunnel. It appears (but do not hold your breath) that NSF funding for engineering training may shortly be available in realistically large quanta. The PDP committee will have met with other parties by the time this article is published and we can only hope that this expectation will be met.

Insofar as training and development of engineering resources is concerned, it is essential that this be provided and managed via the profession and the active involvement of the Voluntary Associations with funded programmes and mentorships. To the government, I say with confidence, we have the tools; provide the funds now seriously from the skills levy to let us do the job.

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