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This blog contains the popular commentary "An Engineer's View" which is a regular feature of SA Mechanical Engineer. The commentary reflects the personal views of SAIMechE members, typically those who have accepted leadership positions in the Institution.

 

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Top tags: an engineer's view  Chris Reay  engineering education  engineering profession 

You be the judge

Posted By Chris Reay, Monday, 25 May 2015

“The president again blamed the scheduled blackouts, in part, on the apartheid regime's failure to expand the electricity supplier's capacity. SA’s electricity woes are a "challenge", but not a crisis and the government knows how to address it”.

We can’t affect the furnaces, but downstream, we have to shut the mills for the times when we are asked to cut back. He explained that the R1.5-million-an-hour loss was calculated based on the closure of Vanderbijlpark’s hot-strip mill and its downstream operations, as well as halting operations at Newcastle from “the rod mill and down”. A CEO statement.

The view below is from an ex-Eskom Engineer. (1977 – 2004 - Forced to take early pension due to Affirmative Action) 
Eskom (when it was the Electricity Supply Commission) was one of the best power utilities in the world. It was owned by all South Africans, and was a non-profit making organization. Money was always set aside, by selling electricity for more than it cost to produce, making surplus for replacement and expansion (No World bank or Government loans). It created its own sinking fund. In 1994 it was turned into a business with the government as sole shareholder. This was done to collect further tax from those who actually pay for electricity and to provide a vehicle for the implementation of government policies in the form of job creation and black empowerment. Profits, and the money set aside for replacement, expansion and maintenance, was paid to the government as dividends.

The sole 'shareholder' directly appointed most of the executive, and non-executive directors. These appointments came out of the ranks of the ANC, and were people with little managerial or power plant experience. Appointments were often based on nepotism. 

They couldn't do the work, but the people who could do the work were retrenched based on skin colour, and some were then re-employed as contractors. Although no real additional work was getting done, (due to lack of funds because of the increased work force of roughly 23%) this was considered acceptable because the government wanted to reduce unemployment. In order to bring relief to poverty stricken townships, Eskom directors were instructed to produce the cheapest electricity in the world. This plan did not work, because of all the extra wages, contractors, a management team that did not have a clue how to run a power utility and which resulted in Eskom running into huge losses for the first time in its history. To compensate for this, the incompetent management team cut the maintenance budget by 55%. These were the first “cracks” in the once stable, profit making power giant’s foundation. 

You will have to live with it and decide if “it’s not a crisis and the government knows how to address it”.

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Quo vadis?

Posted By Chris Reay, Tuesday, 17 February 2015

This is a good question to ask anyone in SA at the moment, with so many of our economic engine diagnostics showing error codes. Clearly we have never been in such pending trouble in a profession that should by all measures have expanding opportunities rather than declining activities. In the role of recruitment consulting which is highly email and internet dependent, one gets the inevitable onslaught of negative news, analysts’ forecasts, global economy trends, and the very direct experiences of employers. Over the years it seemed to be recommended to have goals, practice focus in one’s chosen field and have blind faith in the future. The problem with blind faith is that eventually reality becomes too evident and too compelling to rely on it.

The media is taken up with constant streams of the blame game, regular excuses particularly lame and inept ones from none other than Zuma and the ANC “spokespersons” that can only leave one with the belief that they simply do not have any idea of how bad things actually are in the business of growth and wealth generation. It’s votes at all costs, irrespective of the damage being done in the process that will eventually unhinge the ANC anyway. The claim, for example, that the power crisis is apartheid’s fault is serious in that one expects not only that statements from that level would have a semblance at least of some sense, but that it must by inference reflect the opinion of the Presidency, cabinet and executive who write the speeches for him.

In 2005 my partner and I visited Megawatt Park for a meeting with the then emerging Capital Expansion Division (CED) with a view to getting involved with recruiting engineering talent for the CED. It was early days in this process but well overdue in terms of the need to get going with new capacity, but we all know by now the ANC’s lack of action on this. What stunned us at the meeting was the following. “Yes, we will need new engineering resources, but you are required to provide BLACK FEMALE ENGINEERS ONLY!!” 

You may now realise why Eskom has been judged deficient of appropriate skills and that the number of employees from 1992 to 2012 per installed GW increased by 43% but the effective installed GWs did not increase. This analysis disregards comparing any talent index that will also have changed for the worse as most of the experienced white engineering skills were retrenched or left.

I would now ask, in the so called 5 point plan being undertaken in the recovery “war room”, what is being done about this factor, or in more specific terms, is it not evident that a complex engineering asset requires the appropriate engineering skills and experience to plan, design, construct, operate and maintain to be sustainable? Eskom (and SA) will never recover without this realization.

So leaving behind the history, how can the engineering fraternity get some action going on applying this necessary attribute to the crisis we are ALL in whether we like it or not? Is it possible, and can a start initiative make an impact on this – it is a survival thing, not a nice to have? Clearly as with any recovery action, it will require radical funding and a change of attitude to fix this crisis over a long period, made more difficult with the recent news that our earlier fear has also materialized – government does now not have the funding for the well verbalised 18 project National Development Plan let alone the engineering resources to manage them. It cannot even fund Eskom. Will FDI come to the party with our present investment rating? We are potentially on the road to bankruptcy – Zimbabwe style.

If we as the profession in our voluntary capacity do not take some form of cohesive action, it would seem we are unworthy of our cause as Professional Engineers let alone our need for SA’s economic survival.

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The ageing of the baby boomers

Posted By Chris Reay, Monday, 15 December 2014

On January 1, 2011, the oldest of the Baby Boomer era turned 65. Every day for the next 19 years from that date, about 10,000 more (in the USA alone) will cross that threshold. This puts the starting date of the era at 1946 and the “end” date at 1965. The annual birth rate in the 50s was the highest ever in history.

We can ask what relevance this has to us here in South Africa where the population distribution is radically different from that in the USA. This however becomes apparent when we track the impact this era has had on the development of the built environment world-wide, which is largely engineering based. Post- war birth rate behavior was not much different in other countries recovering from the depression of the 1930s and the second-world war.

The baby boomer era was really the builder of our modern infrastructure as we know it. The rise of urbanization, consumerism, technology development and health care improvements among many changes took place rapidly, underscored by the focus on access to education and high levels of employment. 

If we reflect on SA, it is evident that the basic infrastructure of the country was developed in this period and well into the 80s. Multiple large projects were all happening in mining, power stations, roads, water storage and reticulation, industries, military developments, agriculture and travel facilities to name many. Urban development began with a vengeance and has continued unabated to accommodate the growth in the population. Urban development brings with it the need to provide power, sanitation, communications and general infrastructure and the services required by the citizens.

It is interesting to witness the trends that evolve with eras such as this. Aside from the social characteristics such the hippies, political protests, civil rights etc, there has been a decline in the building and replacement of infrastructure since. It leveled off by virtue of having met the required levels of need. Much of it has understandably worn out over the last 50 years and simply not either been maintained or replaced. It would appear that maintaining and refurbishing is not as glamorous as building from new. 

So we look at our own circumstances and in the domain of engineering it is evident that the same era built the bulk of our infrastructure, and much if it is ageing. More evident is that maintenance has been neglected in many cases and we are experiencing that on an increasing basis in our electrical power assets. Added to that is the “forced” reduction in skills and expertise which existed in that era of Engineers that built the power stations and distribution systems. Where we designed, constructed and commissioned many six pack stations, none of them ever displayed the horror that is being displayed by Medupi – 3 years late (so far) and getting on for double the capital cost, and add to this the cost of non-availability to the economy. It is thus worth noting: things are built by people. Better people build things better.

Of concern to the Americans is that the rate of exit of engineering talent is considerably greater than the rate of entry of new resources that have to be developed with the assistance of the outgoing skills. This is our own experience in SA where it must be understood that numbers entering the industry may be improving but the experiential training is certainly not sufficient. This applies to the trades as well. The average age of a qualified artisan in the USA is now mid- fifties, the same as ours.

This scenario then makes it very clear that unless we harness the ageing skills and experience of the baby boomer fraternity to mentor and upskill the young engineering resources entering the profession, where else will we get them?  They are not available in a box, a book, a video, a classroom or a memorychip. It is time on the ground with the human interaction, learning on the job.

Time waits for no one. The need is now. It’s time to start attracting the baby boomers to enter a paid mentoring profession.

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The need for economic leadership

Posted By Chris Reay, Monday, 15 December 2014

If ever Nero fiddled while Rome burned it must be the current performance of the ANC “leadership”. I hesitate to even use the word in this context as it is virtually non-existent in the role the President is playing and equally insignificant in the performance of the yes-men who answer to him. While the economy slides into an aimless mix of unemployment, retrenchments, energy constraints, bail outs for state enterprises, reducing growth rates and evident general frustration and anger across the population spectrum, Nero ‘s attention is directed elsewhere, primarily in the direction of self-interest and to be quite frank, embarrassing incompetence. Let’s hope this era of the revolution-makers ages out as soon as possible so that a new era of hopefully more concerned leaders will emerge.

On-going reports over the years have signaled the serious deterioration of the infrastructure. Energy is limited, water supplies are threatened with shortages and toxicity. Plants break down and are not 
repaired. Roads deteriorate to the point where maintenance is no longer viable. Health care and education gets worse. It’s a classic case of thermodynamic entropy – lack of work to overcome the tendency to move into a natural state of chaos, all at the same temperature and in social and economic reality, the lowest common denominator.

Can we derive a message from this? A characteristic of the obvious solution is that if the system is not intentionally reversed by leading a focused endeavor to recreate those aspects we call the built environment, it will not reverse and not improve. 

It is critical time for the Engineer to enter the fray, participate in the call for action, play a leadership role, and get to work developing the skills base, training the new graduates, using the retired (and mostly white) engineering  capacity to transfer their experiential skills to the younger generation before it is too late and they are all gone.

There is no room nor role for BEE and its misplaced execution in this activity. To hell with politics, this is serious stuff. It’s all hands on deck and the sooner the better for time waits for no one and we do not have too much left to avoid passing the point of no return.

We now have about 500 new Mechanical Engineer graduates emerging from university each year and mostly finding employment in industry, aside from those that emigrate or go into say financial services and other non-engineering activities. We have the latest and well developed outcomes based professional compliance structure, a willing group of Voluntary Associations hosting the training model, many willing retired or semi-retired Engineers willing to become Mentors, commitments from the SETAs to fund the candidate training costs (including the payment of Mentors), and we hope a willing number of employers in industry wanting to play a role in developing new skills. This will also enable those existing employed graduates to undertake their candidate phase training.

What are we waiting for? Who will lead the movement? Pay me and I will manage it with a vengeance.

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Stop producing Engineers………?

Posted By Chris Reay, Monday, 15 December 2014

It has often been raised that we should limit the supply of Engineers to the market in order to increase the remuneration levels through normal supply/demand dynamics. The ensuing debate tends to indicate that employers would then employ unqualified or untrained persons with the resultant risk of the failure of the system through poor design, operation and maintenance.

The answer must therefore lie in addressing both limitations and to converge towards a combination of necessity and sufficiency and meeting a standard of safety and reliability which effectively means a level that is decreed by adherence to the laws of science. That is a pretty good advantage we have in our profession.

SA is essentially set up for this structure via internationally accredited tertiary qualifications, a well-defined candidate training model with professionally focused assessment criteria, which will shortly be joined by the requirements of Identification of Engineering Work (IDoEW). As with any great rules and structures, they are only any use if implemented effectively by the parties concerned.

Can there be any doubt that Engineers would want to maximize the return on time and effort? As the income levels rise, more Engineers will enter the profession. But engineering, of all the professions, is 
probably the one most readily open to the "quacks" of the discipline, employing guess work, non-adherence to standards, quick fixes and obfuscations which can delude the public. Examples are rife. 

Then there is the take-over of roles that should be performed by the Engineer by bean counters and politicians and the like in matters of selection of cost effectiveness on maintenance, for one example.

This prostitution of Engineering can therefore only be contained by regulation. Thus, as we proceed from the well regulated tertiary starting point, we recognize the need for competence standards and assessment criteria for registration, followed by IDoEW in the realm of practice.

The demand then for the numbers of Engineers required will follow from the needs of society. The constant refrain on scarcity of skills would indicate that the demand still exceeds supply. This imbalance is aggravated by the social engineering effects such as BEE which frequently skew the balance of skills. If only the system would recognize the serious loss of continuum created by expelling the older experienced white Engineers. When their intellect is gone, how will the younger Engineers develop?

We may have a bit of a breakthrough on the involvement of the retired Engineers as Mentors. To encourage this, as from April 2015, the SETAs are obligated to fund the training of Candidate Engineers. 

Most of this funding is destined to pay Mentors in a structured mentorship process.

In reality, engineering remuneration is growing to hopefully compare with the other professions. Let's keep it that way. Professional recognition, upkeep of high standards and ethical conduct will raise the status of Engineers in society.

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The “must” country that rarely delivers

Posted By Chris Reay, Thursday, 25 September 2014

 

For all the “must” talk in which those in government indulge, very little actually gets actioned. If there have been intentions to make it easier for small business to flourish, then they seem to fall into the category of rhetoric only. I learnt only this week of a new product line that the manufacturer has introduced into some 105 countries over that last five years, and who has stated that SA has been the most difficult, bureaucratic and plainly obstructive of all, as though the intention is to prevent the business from proceeding. And it is one which would enable the self-owned business or entrepreneur to develop and grow with little investment other than time, hard work and focus.

 

We are all tired of reading the usual “speeches” by officials at the interminable conferences and congresses about what we “must” do. Most of it is simply common sense that does not need a Minister to harp on about as though it were new rocket science level discovery. “We must improve our science and maths at schools” stuff as though it was news to us. All interminable talk, little action.

 

Now there are the new entry requirements for potential immigrants and tourists. Ministerial prerogative finds it acceptable to defy the objections from the airline industry, employers seeking specialized skills, tourists and business in general. The vulnerable falling Rand and investment rating downgrades do not encourage foreign skills currently on Dollar, Euro and Pound rates seeking a Rand equivalent in SA to get accepted. It’s too high for local industry.

 

The “reality” dashboard shown last month continues to see the pointers moving further into the red. Is it believable that the policy makers can be so disconnected from the reality of an economy in crisis? The “cleva people” as defined by Zuma are noticeably and more audibly astonished and frustrated by the lack of concern and action. Do they really think that the NDP is going to save the country? Please, Mr Minister of Finance, do answer the question we have been asking for the last 3 years: from whence cometh the R840 billion to do the 18 SIPs projects (in three years - your own claim) and where will the required skilled engineering resources, placed in the right structures at the right time, come from? You will also need to rescue Eskom first.

 

Shortly, a presentation on the most recent exercise on scarce engineering skills will be presented at Ministerial level. It has taken note of years of ineffective action and will make some radical proposals to get skills development moving properly. The SAIMechE input made it evident that candidate phase training needs to be taken seriously by both employers and the SETAs with the SAIMechE providing a facilitating role to enable the collective participation by Candidate, Employer, Mentor and Supervisor focusing on the criteria of the outcomes by which the programme is assessed. Those industries that are the likely participants in the SIPS/NDP will be asked to identify the resource needs at a job specification (not generic) level so that training in those disciplines can be actioned.

 

I would like to ask one question of the Minister of Higher Education. Do the subsidies that are paid to universities for the students in the Faculties of Engineering and the Built Environment get used fully for that purpose, or are they diverted to other “non-engineering” causes?

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The Reality

Posted By Chris Reay, Thursday, 25 September 2014

The South African economy is sick. The diagnosis has been going on for a long time, but the prescriptions have been ignored. It is evident that the body may not find the energy and perhaps the will to recover without some serious surgery. The danger of infection is greater as the invasive nature of the surgery is complex. The doctors and specialists (quacks?) may not succeed in finding a recovery routine before incapacity of the patient becomes permanent. To make matters worse, the patient is in a state hospital.

I am writing these words as the engineering based industry, having just had a serious dose of platinum deficiency syndrome, is now steeped in a viral bout of non-metal-working plague. It is going to take a patient with a very strong immune system to overcome this one. Many of the limbs that support the body may simply not survive, suffer from permanent damage and shrink into a state of paralysis.

All the machines (that are working) are monitoring the patient as follows. For clarity, the health monitor dashboard terminology has been calibrated with economic metrics.

Productivity: declining with the record showing the index has shown a reduction of 41% in the last 10 years. The meter rider position shows that the current level is the lowest in 46 years.

Employment: declining.

Unemployment: Increasing

Economic growth rate: Declining, now below 2% pa

Rand parity with world currencies: declining.  Rand: US$  1994: 3.55:1   2014:10.80:1

International Investment rating: Declining towards junk bond status

Corruption factor in government and the economy: increasing, reaching epidemic levels

Infrastructure status, education and service standards: declining

Small Medium Enterprises development rate: at best static but declining in small manufacturing.

Inflation rate: increasing

“Real” recession: evidently active and technically in stage of stagflation

Cost of living of basic items basket: rising (at alarming rate)

Centre of gravity of skilled and experienced engineering resources: moving into 50-60 age spectrum

Potential for Engineers to survive economically at retirement: declining

I do not think we need any more metrics to realize that the patient is in really big trouble.

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Project performance

Posted By Chris Reay, Thursday, 25 September 2014

My interest and activities in the field of constraints theory over the last 15 years inevitably leads me to evaluate how its body of knowledge has impacted on industry. It was developed by the late Eli Goldratt, who described his reasoning behind developing the Theory of Constraints (TOC) was to help to teach the world to think more effectively. Perhaps the most resonant feature of TOC is that it simplifies complex issues due to the logical manner in which the thinking processes are applied.

Project management has had few really significant breakthroughs over the last 50 years with the exception of the applications of the TOC to the processes. Reviewing the statistics published by organisations that carry out this type of research indicates that the overall project failure rate (as defined by collective metrics) had not changed since the early 80s and has remained at a level of some 70%.  Indications are emerging that over recent years this may be starting to improve.

Projects essentially fail on the two main measures; costing well over original budget and finishing well beyond due completion date. In fact it can be said that there is no such thing as a project that meets its original cost estimate even though it may finish on due date. The challenges that arise in projects which require resolving normally face the inevitable conflict: finish on time at no increase in cost or finish at original cost with no increase in time.

TOC realized that until measures to address this typical conflict were created, the situation would not change. The thinking processes reviewed the assumptions being made and extent of the focus. The most interesting to me is that the changes that TOC proposes are of a human behavior nature rather than high-tech algorithmic solutions. When this difference is observed by the new-comer to TOC, the response is often “why all the hype, it looks like common sense to me”. Eli, is his characteristic way, would respond that the observation is entirely correct; the problem is that common sense is not that common.

Projects are once off activities and have not had the benefits of the production industry that has adopted the constraints theory to implement and practice the focusing steps. Touch time in projects is long whereas in production it is generally short. But both processes utilise the same fundamental rule of applying the focus onto the constraint, subordinating to it and making use of buffer capacity to meet the throughput requirements.

The evidence is now robust that the most effective project improvement that has occurred over recent times has been from the application of TOC methodology.

What can we learn from all this in the hoped-for implementation of the 18 NDP projects? It is apparent that whatever project approach one uses there is one endemic mistake made on so many projects today. That is, starting to construct before the design is complete, which is to me a culture driven by the bean- counter mentality that, in its ignorance, believes the project will finish sooner and cost less.

A quick lesson from TOC would propose the following: start activities as late as possible, ensure resources are available which includes design work, avoid multi-tasking with limited resources , cut the normal (over) estimated times back by 50%, allocate half to the task and half to the project buffer, start the activity on time and thereby run your project with safety in hand instead of losing it before you start.

The biggest concern I have for the NDP is the evident lack of engineering and project management capacity at the Owner’s team level. Will government, provinces and municipalities take this issue seriously and ask private industry to help with resourcing this?

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Will the NDP actually start happening?

Posted By Chris Reay, Thursday, 25 September 2014

We have been subjected to the National Development Plan for some time now with various degrees of emphasis. Government, or at least in reality the ANC, continues to use it as a manifesto item typical of political posturing presumably to convince the public (and the voters) that the country is all set to have an era of great investment, new projects, employment opportunities, export improvements, and reversal of the fiscal deficits amongst many attributes. The better life for all stuff. The alliance continues to nitpick at it and academic and research organisations find flaws in the numbers and the statistics as though it is all an exact science. It has taken on the form of a sort of hallucinating drug that one places one’s faith in when faced with the current economic reality. It all depends on what is one’s own perspective of current reality.

Engineers would be inclined to agree on the need for the NDP, the 18 Strategic Infrastructure Projects (SIPs) and the spin off from the designing, planning, constructing, commissioning, maintaining and operating of all these projects. These will use all the engineering capacity that we have, and more. Never mind from where the investment funds are to come from, that remains all smoke and mirrors and it’s hard to believe that the country will suddenly find R800 odd billion and then spend it over three years on completed projects.

Perhaps closer to the Engineer’s concern is, if we had all that money, where are we going to find the sufficient number of engineering resources to spend it (properly)? We will avoid contemplating the potential behind the corruption that is now endemically entrenched in our country with very little accountability. The efforts to ascertain the available engineering resources by the PICC/SIPs/DHET/ECSA/Volunteer committees will presumably produce some results but so far the numbers do not seem more than high level estimates. I believe it was an exercise to find out what we already knew: we have a scarce skills problem. My own evaluation is that the systems and processes used cannot measure the extent of the scarcity in a meaningful way if the time frame is that of the SIPs programme. This is an example of breaching a very fundamental engineering ethos: if you cannot measure it, you do not know much about it. Clearly, if the metrics used to measure the scarcity do not take this into account, the process while necessary, is insufficient.

The 18 SIPs projects are reasonably well defined at a high level. From this a start should be made to identify the required resources by a reasonable relationship between project size and type. The reality is however, that those who will need the resources normally specify the needs at a granular level, not a generic level that emerged from this committee. Efforts of the SAIMechE to propose a model to measure the needs, to locate as many as possible from the existing market and to focus Candidate Engineer development in those scarce areas are met with a sort of glazed, unconvinced response by the “authorities”. After all, we have to find ways to spend R800 billion effectively, but it would appear that to spend a few million on getting knowledge of the course to take to manage the scarce skills issue is considered either too expensive or unnecessary. The real reason is uncertain as the response has been nil. If the proposed model were to show a return on investment, it would only have to save about one thousandth of one percent of the programme budget to cover its cost. It’s a no-brainer when one realises the costs, delays and consequences of the scarce skills impact on projects. Take a look at Medupi and the Durban-Jhb pipeline as examples. Consider the impact on infrastructure service delivery alone.  There are legendary other cases out there that show the result of technically incapacitated owners’ teams alone.

But then that makes the assumption that the NDP actually is going to happen. If history is anything to go by, we may still be talking about it this time next year. With elections over and “won”, why hurry? At least it may all work as a dream forming drug.

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The case for free-lance, paid Mentors

Posted By Chris Reay, Tuesday, 27 May 2014


The new outcomes based registration system for Engineers is now underway albeit that ECSA has not yet developed the online system for the capture of the submission data. The release of the systems for Technologists, Technicians and Certificated Engineers is in progress.

SAIMechE, under its Professional Development Programme (PDP), has finalised the development of the training curriculum for each of the eleven outcomes, the submission capture formats and the introduction to the complete programme and the training programme for Mentors who play a necessary, regular and specified role in the process. The PDP has been developed using the exact outcome and assessment criteria for registration as those formulated by ECSA under the R02 model. SAIMechE will facilitate the Candidate's training programme by the provision of the documentation that guides the Candidate on the requirements for each outcome and the coordination of the activities via a monthly Mentor facilitated workshop per Candidate cell.

We call this the regular procedure that is intended to be applied to facilitate the training programme for professional development for members of SAIMechE. This process will result in the issue of an SAIMechE Certificate of Competence that will enable any holder thereof to use the same content to apply for ECSA registration.

A necessary condition for the process to work is the structured involvement of the Mentor, and it is here that, for the PDP to have its intended industry wide effect, the role of the "independent" Mentor is required. Currently, and under the legacy training system, the employer provides Mentors from its own employ that provide the service to its own employed Candidate Engineers. This generally limits the availability of mentoring in the case of smaller businesses that may not have the capacity to employ persons who can act as Mentors. The role of the Mentor in the legacy system is generally much less involved than that required for the new system. Thus the PDP is, in conjunction with the other VAs, ECSA and the "scarce skills" forums, striving to obtain formal and substantial funding for free-lance Mentors to undertake the mentoring role as a revenue earning activity.

Accordingly, SAIMechE is inviting its members to consider applying for the role of Mentor for the PDP. The role will be defined in the Mentor training programme. This includes the review of all the PDP curriculum material, the workshop process, guidelines on the forming of candidate cells for ease of access and meetings, referee roles, sign-off documentation, remuneration and administration functions. The referee or sign-off process must finally be done by a Mentor who is a Pr Eng.

Ideally the business model would encourage a Mentor to seek and oversee up to six candidates in a cell who would all attend a one day workshop per month. Each workshop addresses one of the eleven outcomes in turn, thus making eleven workshops per annum per cell. Depending on the number of candidates available to an area, a Mentor could select to practice mentoring full time for as many days of the week he or she chooses. Thus the income potential is attractive.

This is a bold move forward to stimulate the level of professionalism in the industry and to utilise the valuable experience of the Mentor. The question remains, can we find sufficient Mentors?

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Seeking the good news

Posted By Chris Reay, Tuesday, 18 March 2014

If ever there was a time when we wanted the good news, it must be now. A time to listen to that classic hit by Crocodile Harris " Give me the good news”

If we accept the word forever
Maybe we should live together
And not be scared to watch
The late night news
You can't use guns to build a nation
A bullet never was creation

Engineering wise, SA is really in the doldrums. Can we be positive and expect that things should now get better? That, of course, only happens if people make it happen, so we can do some dreaming that we hope will turn to reality. Positive thinking helps. Consider the options:

The active start to the National Development Plan. The 18 strategic infrastructure projects actually start to happen. The talking and conferences that have consumed any energy associated with them stop and the action starts.

We get let into the secret by treasury as to how these are to funded. The engineering community is invited to participate at the highest level in the Owners’ teams, the project planning and conceptual engineering to ensure that the projects are correctly structured, engineered and managed. The politicians wake up and realise that it’s all about the built environment, and that is created by science and experience, not hollow, electoral promises based on ignorance.

Government and private business interests start to work together for the common goal of increasing the economic growth rate: what about an economic codesa? Corruption gets serious attention.

The unions and the mining industry together reach a win-win understanding and proceed to jointly add value to our massive commodity assets sitting underground that are useless unless mined and treated in a competitive manner. This in turn encourages the reluctant and unconvinced investors to consider SA as a less risky investment destination. Funds start to flow into the economy again and the current account deficit reverses back to a reasonable level. The Rand stabilizes.

Education? Well, while we are dreamimg and hoping, the training and development of teachers becomes a reality as this is the primary necessary condition for our youth to acquire the essentials of literacy and numeracy. The 30 % pass rate becomes history. Idle Funds in the skills development and Seta accounts are applied to the training of engineering resources including the funding of Mentors.

Last but not least, the government becomes convinced that cadre deployment in place of resources with skills and expertise is a disaster.

If you are willing to be part of the solution, by clicking onto http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JACJjid9WWY should provide some inspiration.

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HR : where is the added value in recruitment?

Posted By Chris Reay, Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Some recent investigations into the views that engineering resources have on the benefit that they accrue from the HR function in their organizations is most revealing. It is almost entirely negative.

I adopted a neutral role in the inquiry process so as not to influence the issue from an emotional perspective as I have my own views on the role of HR in the recruitment process. It just was so evident that the consensus confirmed my own views.

The first issue raised is how much do HR practitioners know about the role of engineering functions that enables them to assemble a job specification that is meaningful and practical?

The second issue raised is how much do HR practitioners know about the role of engineering resources that enable them to actually evaluate CVs with any credibility?

The third issue is how many engineering resources feel almost insulted when requested to be interviewed by a young inexperienced HR person who may be half the age of the candidate and possessing some soft skill qualification perhaps at the most. Those that pass this session of questionable worth are then selected to proceed to the line management interview.

Then the issue is raised as to the time line management spend evaluating the CVs presented to them. It continues to astound me as to how fickle this is. If the assortment of technical boxes is not ticked or the candidate is too old or has not been in the same type of business, there is invariably a rejection. I have seen more time spent adjudicating offers for a conventional pump than spent assessing the credentials of the most valuable asset in the company: the Engineer.

We have a scarce skills problem and do not think that the current economic downturn is going to have any significant impact on this other than in the short term in specific roles.

Some suggestions to address this issue.

  1. HR must desist from making it apparent they are constructing their own job needs by becoming a valueless and time consuming constraint in the throughput process of recruiting engineering resources into employers.
  2. HR must cease the process of "cutting and pasting” as many functions in intricate detail into job specifications. Some of the inclusions are hilarious at best.
  3. Any job specification that calls for a large number of very specific skills and experiences that the employing body is calling must ask themselves: where is their own succession planning? Who "out there” is expected to provide these in place of your own organisation?
  4. Enable communication between the candidate and the line Engineer to discuss detail even before the formal interview.
  5. Use recruiters that understand Engineers and engineering as a profession.
  6. Start seriously undertaking the training of Candidate Engineers within the employer organization and stop expecting 35 year old Engineers with 15 years of high value project and business experience to be waiting around for your call.

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SAIMechE’s suggested contribution to solutions for the scarce skills challenge

Posted By Chris Reay, Wednesday, 06 November 2013

At the recent workshop held by the Department of Higher Education (DHET), the President’s Infrastructure Coordination Committee (PICC) and the Council for the Built Environment (CBE), the objective was to assess the status of the scarce skills in South Africa by assembling Occupational Teams (OTs) that would be assembled largely from the voluntary engineering organizations and academia. Two days were spent following the earlier work done by the PICC/DHET/CBE team to prepare a list of what was determined by the 18 Strategic Infrastructure Projects (SIPs) to be the scare skills for this programme. This list covered the management, professional and trades identified as such by the Organising Framework for Occupations (OFO) model.

The 18 SIPs are identified at a very high level, for example SIP1 being "Unlocking the Northern mineral belt with the Waterberg as the catalyst”. For what was alleged to be "security” reasons, not much else is published on this SIP to expand on the detail, but it can be reliably gathered that a large component will be for coal mining development to take up the supply that is dwindling in the Witbank/Middelburg area.

The projected list of scarce skills, when reviewed on the basis that it should enable some effective action to commence, is in my view a rather useless piece of data insofar as the Mechanical Engineers are concerned. It simply shows "about 500” needed at a scarcity level of "20-50%” whatever that may convey.

The SAIMechE team filled in their answers to the OT list on the wide spectrum of questions and these will then presumably be assembled and evaluated for action with all the others. Most of the questions we have been addressing for years that seem to do no more than lead to the next conference or workshop. One simply comes away with the feeling of perpetual talk and no perceived action.

The first concern the team had was that the workshop called for voluntary conveners to fill variety of time consuming roles, and this just seemed to illustrate a poor business model. Here we have the National Development Programme (NDP) with its first 18 projects worth hundreds of billions of Rand in total installed value (TIV) that has no funds to pay for a properly structured resource development team that would comprise a fraction of a percent of the TIV cost. It simply illustrates the importance given to this role in the success of the programme. There is no contracted leverage with voluntary teams.

The SAIMechE team made three constructive, actionable suggestions. Firstly, establish a top level professional resources team who would be paid to get the scarce skills issue measured and solutions developed, and which would be in a position to advise the SIPs owner’s teams on the appropriate resources required at owner’s level that could be seconded from the profession in a similar way that the accounting profession does for state bodies.

Secondly, develop a model for evaluating availability of scarce skills to identify the scarce resource with the relevant, engineering specific attributes. It is based on the Engineer’s credo that you do not know much about anything until you can define and measure it. Scarcity needs to have two references to be measureable: what you have and what you need. Accordingly SAIMechE could offer to facilitate working with professional engineering resource recruiting bodies to create a large and well configured, best-in-class, dynamic database of engineering resources for these and other South African projects. By simply stating that we need a number of Mechanical Engineers does not resolve the issue. The only time the real scarcity is known is when the employer specifies the need at granular level of definition. For example one can search on Mechanical Engineers and get hundreds, but then ask for those with the specifics such as 10 years of coal plant processing experience or conveyor and coal chute design, one may be lucky to find a few if any under today’s dwindling expertise that largely exists in near retirement age groups or who may have emigrated.

Thirdly, with this information and working with the employers undertaking the projects and who issue the job specifications with these details, we can identify those who should be taking on the Candidate Engineers that wish to do their training under the SAIMechE Professional Development Programme. SAIMechE would be the paid conduit to provide information on scarce skills to the PICC or the CBE on an on-going basis enabled by the dynamics of the model. We need to ensure that the expectation of perpetual voluntary work by professionals is not presumed. It’s a business reality to pay for value. It would it addition be of value to be able to second experts from the Membership, exploiting the immense, collective intellectual capital of the Institution and effectively meeting the essence of the mission statement.


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The realization on scarce resources

Posted By Chris Reay, Friday, 20 September 2013

After many months (years?) of no apparent action following the publication of the National Development Plan, various bodies are now awakening to the reality of the resource requirements in order to be able to effectively manage and spend the billions on infrastructure projects.

It was always going to be a tough challenge: R800 odd billion over three years. Someone was smoking something to actually believe that this was viable. Dwell for a minute on the realities of project spend patterns. Firstly, no spending pattern is ever linear, or in terms of Rand over time, would it ever represent a consistent average from start to finish. Thus represented, it is the area under the curve that amounts to the total project spend.

Forward to reality: project spending patterns have the s-curve feature: they rise slowly as concept, design, procurement occurs and then start to climb steeply as deliveries and construction follow. It then tails off at commissioning and handover. The essence of this that there is a peak, and for the area under the curve to meet the project budget, the peak is considerably higher than the average.

What does this mean? Most likely it means that resource needs are not linear and have the same peaking nature. So when estimates are produced reflecting the numbers of resources needed, are these factored by the time axis? Most times not, and we invariably get the classic multi-tasking that is imposed on the scarce resources. This then adds to the potential delay in due performance dates being met. Multi-tasking creates its own delays, and anyone who believes otherwise should attend a few workshops that demonstrate this admirably.

Let’s then add another classic activity that for some pernicious reason remains the foundation of project planning: critical path scheduling. How many projects ever give consideration to the only development that has had the most time and cost saving successes on projects over the last 50 years? It’s called critical chain scheduling. As an aspirant believer in this process, it continues to amaze me that management does not know that it even exists let alone how it works. Far worse is the regular experience one has in presenting the process to the potential users, who most times praise the fundamentals that define the process, but return home only to be faced with the common response - business as usual.

Well, the NDP could do a lot worse than, once the reality of limited skilled and experienced resources has sunk home, have a good look at adopting a critical chain scheduling philosophy. It may just assist in preventing the project durations and costs to emulate the dreadful experiences we seem to have with most major projects such as Medupi.

The usual responses continue to be heard to using such a significant variation to standard procedure. It is too difficult: management won’t understand it. Perhaps then we need to study the experiences of major USA and Japanese projects as examples that have proved the point. The main changes occur in the human behavior of project management due the discipline imposed by critical chain principles: prioritising projects, assuming most durations are overestimated, aggregation and buffering of the safety before it’s lost, starting on time and measuring progress in time and not money. It not only sounds sensible, but it actually works.

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The more that things change, the more they stay the same

Posted By Chris Reay, Monday, 19 August 2013

It is hard to comprehend that our once successful and world class power utility is now in such a parlous state of diminished competence. The engineering professions have since 1992 warned that, if the government believes in its economic growth projections based on GEAR and ASGISA, then as with any power utility that depends for base load on the 6 pack fossil or two reactor nuclear plant configurations, then start building them without further delay, and to stop kidding themselves that private power interests would want to get involved with investing here on the returns available with the (admirable) historically low unit cost of Eskom’s supply.

Aside from now facing the reality of a major national economic driver failure and the frustrations and anger of business and citizens, Eskom will have to face up to the formidable task of recreating the lost institutional memory and capital in the form of experienced engineering resources to manage both the capital programme and the maintenance of a very stretched system. My own observations and interaction with Eskom, commencing some four years ago on the efforts to provide resource input to the Capital Development Department have been nothing but amazing in the naivety and misplaced belief then that all new Engineers would need to be black females! The affirmative action obsession will come back and bite them big time. Eskom now faces the additional challenge of global demand for good and experienced power engineering resources. In a hysteresis-correcting like manner, they will have to bend back dramatically to reverse their losses, as their mistaken belief that training is going to solve this one should not fool the public. We all know how long it takes to mould a useful, productive, experienced Engineer.

Overall the blame for being politically naïve and failure to heed the advice of experts must lie with the government and the Minister of Public Enterprises. It is hard to believe that those tasked with the responsibility for energy management fell into the realm of unconscious incompetence ie they did not know that they did not know, as the warning bells were loud and clear long ago. I recall Ian Macrae, a past CEO of Eskom, stating "if you stop Eskom growing, you stop the economy growing” How true this is going to be. What must international investors now think about SA as an investment option? Load shedding, rationed power, inadequate skills to recover, the possibility of skills actually depleting further…..and worse, it seems not much convincing light at the end of the tunnel. It is now time that the government and Eskom paid some attention to the significant collective expertise that exists out in the community in the form of retrenched and retired white Engineers who have earned their T shirts in the power industry. Eskom’s current constraint to recover throughput as an active power generating asset will be the supply and retention of skills. It will take some inventive strategy to get that act together but until I see some real serious concern to realize this, then the consumer is going to add desperation to the frustration that power rationing, higher tariffs and unforeseen outages are the future for a long time. Below are some of the statements from the Eskom annual report which I include for a bit of light, masochistic reading:

"Eskom was recognised as a utility of global stature in 2001 when it received the Financial Times award for the Global Power Company of the Year.

Power outages in 2006 and 2007 have brought into sharp focus the vulnerability of the power system. Several factors came into play – higher than expected demand, unplanned outages, and more importantly, a diminishing reserve capacity. In recent years the reserve margin for generation capacity has shrunk to between 8% and 10%. We aspire to a reserve margin of 15%.

As the provider of 95% of South Africa’s electricity, our contribution may be the most fundamental of all in supporting economic growth in South Africa – another reason for the exhilaration and heightened sense of mission that have characterised Eskom’s activities over the past year”.

Missing conclusion: We ran out of power because, together with government, we were not competent or experienced enough to plan and manage the energy system of the country. Our exhilaration may be short lived, as the disillusioned consumer must now pick up the tab for our actions.

Just in case the reader did not notice, this is a word for word repeat of the SA Mechanical Engineer leader article of January 2008. The more they stay the same….

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The gathering storm

Posted By Chris Reay, Monday, 22 July 2013


Engineering practitioners are feeling the pinch that is engulfing most of the citizens of South Africa. We observe daily the reaction to the rising cost of living, the almost demonic rise in basic expenses that far exceed the published inflation figures. We indulge in the ritual of finding reasons, and it being such an emotional issue, we collectively are failing to rationally respond to finding solutions. Let’s firstly take a look at one of the typical, evident symptoms.

The generation and distribution of electricity must without question be an absolute and necessary condition to enable a country to build a modern economy. A quick review of the history over the last two decades reveals that Eskom did not build any capacity into the system until the load-shedding crisis of 2007-2008 made it blatantly apparent that we were in big trouble. The projections by energy experts and Eskom themselves since 1997 were not heeded by government. It thought it would rely on the emergence of independent power producers and not did listen to the warnings that such players only took part if the investments made sense. Eskom had built many modern 6 pack stations that were considered world class and lead the way with large units, the use of pithead locations and the use of high-ash content coal. Eskom had developed a well versed owner’s team with a top level intellectual memory and capacity that knew about power generation, transmission and distribution. Their model was to design and install stations that did not try to experiment with untested technology and politically dictated management structures. It knew the need for experienced skills.

Fast forward to today. Our now infamous political interference habits are coming home to bite us. Eskom, on top of a few bouts of knockout increases in tariffs, then requires a 16% price adjustment per annum for at least the next five years. The surpluses that had been generated were taken by the new government for other uses instead of providing for a sinking fund. Lovely cash cow. Who worries about the future capitalization? This is then compounded by "removing” the retained intellectual memory and replacing it with an inexperienced owner’s team. This team manages to mess with maintenance as well, so that the reliability of the installed capacity is compromised.

Then the message hits home: we must build two new stations: Medupi and Kusile. We are not that good at estimating, especially as we decide to go for bespoke specifications instead of, under the pressure of the circumstances, relying on the experience of established project structures and know-how. The projected costs of Medupi rise from (well who really knows?) anything from R87 billion to now R105 billion and counting, and the date of first synchronization has moved from 2011 to 2014. The messages from the site are scary: you do not know it all. Be aware, things are bad.

So we connect the dots and what does it reveal? It takes no rocket scientist to figure out root cause. I have never indulged in that horror practice of being politically correct, and whilst I will say this, it is now the almost universal opinion in a noticeable crescendo.

Transformation without education.

If that is not readily apparent, then one should not be surprised at the dangers of a gathering storm.

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A “Grimm” fairy tale……

Posted By Chris Reay, Thursday, 04 July 2013

The phone rang. "Hallo, Professional Engineer here. May I help you?” The voice on the other end sounded a bit desperate. "I am JZ, the CEO of a company called RSA Ltd and I am here with my Financial Director PG and my Operations Director TM” We are enquiring whether you would be in a position to visit our works and give us some advice. Our main production unit called the Economy Machine is giving a lot of trouble”. "I’ll be right over” said Engineer.

In the debriefing meeting, Engineer enquired as to the purpose of the machine, the units of production and the throughout rate. "The machine is meant to produce a product called a GDP. We set it up to meet the needs of a market of about 50 million users, and to increase its annual output by 7%. No matter what we do it hardly meets even half of the user market, and is now only increasing by about 2% per year, and is absorbing most of our capital. You can see it needs some fixing, and up to now we have not used any Engineers, only our usual consultants. We think it may be time to consider the views of an Engineer.

Professional Engineer was then permitted to inspect the machine, test various components, take readings and then produce his report, having addressed this complex problem in accordance with the Exit Level Outcomes of the Engineer’s competency criteria. The essential elements of the findings were as follows.

  1. The main problem is that the machine has three major functions that are all working against each other, thus stifling GDP at the material mixing stage. The three parts driving these functions are the Free Market Economy device, the SACP device and the COSATU device. Each is directing the raw material into different processes.

  2. There are a large number of components fitted that are not up to the designers’ standards. We have listed many that were selected and fitted based on the coloured boxes that come from the favoured suppliers, and not from those meeting the working requirements in the specifications.

  3. A lot of the raw material feedstock and many of the essential parts and correct spares for the machine have allegedly been removed from the factory, and are unaccounted for in the materials audit we did. It appears no action is ever taken to rectify this.The electrical power to the machine has frequent trips. Switchboard distribution components such as breakers are reset, a dangerous procedure, and no maintenance records are evident on any of the equipment. Much of it has been left in a dysfunctional state. Reviewing the costing records, the energy input price and labour costs have escalated alarmingly and well over the market inflation rate, and productivity of a GDP unit per worker has fallen by 40% over the last 10 years.

  4. We reviewed the company’s annual report to attempt to glean some earlier financial and production records, and noted that the auditors have qualified their audit report every year since 2000.

  5. We noticed that many of the factory workers were not busy, and in enquiring from HR, we were told that the cost of dismissing them is very high and that HR spend most of their time at the CCMA putting the company’s case against workers who have clearly failed to perform. In fact, while writing this report, the machine was stopped and the workers were out on strike apparently demanding a 60% wage increase, free housing, free medical aid and shorter working hours.

  6. We reviewed the qualifications of all employees to evaluate suitability for the operation of a high technology production business and we noted that none of the Directors and Senior Managers has any technical qualifications or experience in GDP production.

Our report accordingly recommends a complete change of management, recruiting and training the appropriately qualified staff, removal of the functions of the SACP and COSATU devices, disposal of all the pirate parts used from the coloured boxes, re-order of the specified parts, the overhaul of the electrical systems, and the immediate introduction of a hire-and-fire labour policy. Without such measures, the machine and the factory will have to close down, with the accompanied non-production of GDP and the increase in unemployed workers. The shareholders need to act to replace the Directors at the next AGM.

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The new registration system

Posted By Chris Reay, Thursday, 06 June 2013


On the 1st April 2013 ECSA officially launched the new registration system. Initially this has been done for the category of Professional Engineer, and will be followed by those for Professional Certificated Engineer, Professional Technologist and Professional Technician. The current (or now termed the legacy system) may be selected by the candidate for Pr Eng up until the end of March 2015, but it is expected that most new candidates will see the advantages of pursuing the new system.

For the uninitiated who explores the process of applying as a candidate for registration, the extent of the documentation and the interpretation of the requirements can be somewhat overwhelming. It is all contained on the ECSA website.

The essential differences between the two systems is that the legacy system focuses on the input criteria or training and experience content, whereas the new system is based on an outcomes content and assessed against eleven specific assessment criteria. Both pursue the achievement of professional competence as the goal.

Of interest is that the process is generic for all engineering disciplines and it only identifies the discipline where the guidelines require that the type of workplace environment must be appropriate for that discipline. The essence is to develop professional competence and not a high level of technical skills. One could readily conclude that the competence criteria would apply to just about any other profession. After all, the ability to communicate well, be ethical, use knowledge, analyse and solve problems and manage effectively must apply to any profession, whether it be medical, legal, accounting or in soft skills. It is perhaps a chance now for engineering resources to take up more assertive and visible roles in structures outside of pure engineering. Could this be a mechanism by which the engineering profession enhances its social status to be better represented on corporate boards and government structures?

The need for professionalism within the engineering ranks is being identified by many employers with whom the Institution has interacted recently. Commentary such as needing the types of competency skills outlined in the criteria rather than super technical skills are becoming evident. "We can get technical know-how relatively easily today from the available sources, but we cannot get the professional competencies without the sort of development you are describing” is not an infrequent response.

Accordingly, the SAIMechE is developing the Professional Development Programme (PDP) to extend the fundamentals of the ECSA requirements into a facilitated training and development initiative that effectively enables the candidate to readily envisage a practical process of achieving the required outcomes in their workplace environment, how to interact with the supervisor and mentor and participate in peer group sessions to progressively practice and reach a competence standard at professional level to confidently assume responsible roles in industry and society.

SAIMechE has recently launched the Road to Registration workshop on the events calendar. In due course, it envisages each of the eleven exit level outcomes being offered as a full day workshop for the benefit of registered and unregistered members.


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Power disrupts. Absolute power disrupts absolutely

Posted By Chris Reay, Friday, 12 April 2013

The Editor mentioned to me the other day that she should issue a health warning with some of my leader articles because they often create an acute case of depression. This will in future be issued with the articles as it is becoming increasingly difficult to construct positive and encouraging articles about the state of the nation and the environment in which engineering has to play its role.

Last month we took a look at the status of the mining industry and one could not do much more than be pretty negative about the trend it has taken over recent years. From being top spot so to speak for decades, we have slumped to a mediocre level that replicates a number of other circumstances in our country. And the bell tolled loud and clear this week when 4 major employers in the EPCM industry advised that they were about to institute section 189 retrenchment programmes. They inevitably become the victims of the lack of new mining spend which in turn does not happen because the investors in such business have made it clear that other countries are able to offer a less risky investment climate. Most of the analyst commentary on the issue has confirmed this view. It is just appalling and almost treasonable that those in government allowed the talk about nationalization to go so far without taking a firm hand, ably assisted by incoherent mining policy.

It only goes to show that in such matters of global economics and investor confidence that they do not know. And worse is that they do not know that they do not know. It had little to do with the Euro crisis which gets blamed for everything including lack of local service delivery. Don’t mention the State of the Nation address because I will then need the advice of the intended health warning.

On the matter of power, we note with some relief that NERSA saw fit to refute giving Eskom the 16% escalation over the next five years, which on top of the increases over the last three would have been catastrophic for industry, business and the average citizen. Even the 8% is severe enough which means a doubling of the price of electricity in less than 9 years, and it does not include the mark-up that most municipalities will add on before charging the consumer.

It causes one to reflect on what has happened to Eskom, and whilst it gets the blame for such drastic price increases, it is really government policy that caused the whole crisis. To have left the power capitalization industry to virtually collapse from 1994 to 2007 was the collective decision of policy makers who again demonstrated that they did not know that they did not know. In that period Eskom became a cash-cow for government. It also became a show piece of transformation where most of the established intellectual capital and memory was methodically removed to satisfy a political whim. It became evident that political identity was more important than experienced engineering and project management skills that had been built up over decades of designing and building the best six pack stations in the world.

The effective owner’s team had been removed and replaced with the outsourcing to foreign based project houses. Costs escalated and are exhibited in the horrific escalation on the price of Medupi for example. Where was the sinking fund to finance the new station build? It became necessary to charge the current consumers to fund the capital expansion. Therein lies your 16% requirement. Whatever Eskom may say to the contrary, it is borne out by the current nightmare that personifies our electrical energy generation and distribution structures. Absolute power has certainly disrupted the economy and will do so for the foreseeable future. How do we reverse the slide to uncompetitive input costs?

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For whom the bell tolls…

Posted By Chris Reay, Tuesday, 12 March 2013

You are a Mechanical Engineer. You work in the South African industry. It would be hard to find any activity that is some way does have some connections with the South African mining industry. Connections take the form of user of the mined commodity, supplier of equipment, supplier of services, and ultimately has some dependence on the value that mining adds to the GDP of the country. If you are part of a consultancy, a project management group, a construction company, a financial group and countless businesses from large multi-million Rand organizations to SMEs, it is very likely you will have connections with the mining industry. Mining flows in the veins of South Africans and so it should. We have been told that, following a Citibank survey, we literally sit on an un-mined value of some $2.5 trillion in commodities. The largest in the world.

Just what did we do with this asset that has been given to us for free and left to our collective responsibility as a result of our being the residents and citizens of the country? The early pioneers started out bravely, successfully investing money, technology, hard work and facing unprecedented risk head-on to build and place South Africa at the top of the gold and diamond production world-wide. We have some 80% of the world’s known platinum ore and a good deal of most of the others. We pioneered the mining of high-ash content coal and assisted in the design and development of boilers that can burn it effectively and efficiently to evolve some of the best and most admired and low cost six pack power stations in the world that supported the mining industry. In the early nineties we had some 800 high tech researchers across the board tackling challenges in the mining industry. We thankfully still have a flourishing mining supply industry that designs and builds bespoke equipment to service the industry here and internationally. We had the best Mining Engineers in the world, lots of them, and the older ones mentored the younger ones as a matter of course. We were King of that shining castle.

Take a snapshot today. What comes to mind? Marikana, closed platinum shafts, strikes, poor worker living conditions, reducing productivity, rapidly rising input costs, electricity prices rising at a rate to not only render a lot of mining uneconomic, but a lot of industry as well. We have dropped in the league of gold mining countries from first to fifth. Where are many of our talented mining resources? They are now running the mining industries in Australia, Canada, South America and Central Africa. Our research group has dropped by a factor of ten. International investors are openly advising that we do not really feature on their screens at present: the unchecked talk of nationalization, the regulatory confusion created by the MPRDA and SIMS reports has taken its toll. Perceptions are real, not imaginary as the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) seems to think.

In my book, if the rule applies that those who set the rules and call the shots must be accountable, then that lies fair and square with the DMR. It is not surprising that we see these debacles in the mining, energy, education, health, security and infrastructure functions in South Africa. When the goal is political power at all costs ably assisted by inexperience and an illiterate and innumerate voter support base, then do not be surprised when a competitive nation declines to mediocrity.

If anyone can propose a solution to extricate ourselves from this mess and turn ourselves up again, then we need all the help we can get. Otherwise the bell tolls for thee.

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