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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. If you are a SAIMechE member and would like to share something valuable with your community, please send your submission to info@saimeche.org.za for consideration.

 

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The carbon (dioxide) footprint dilemma

Posted By Chris Reay, Monday, 08 August 2011

The climate change/world warming/pollution/ we-are-all-going-to-die dilemma continues to raise more questions than answers. The more I try to fathom out what should be done the more confused I get. The problem is that as with all evaluations of this nature each argument appears to have been decided on the decision that it wants, and then it structures the evidence on a selective basis to justify the end state. But it is also the result of the impact of a fundamental factor that governs societal decision making when presented with options.

There are some fundamental theorems that provide insight into the mechanism of decision making when multiple choices are presented to voting parties. Of relevance is Arrow's Theorem or paradox that says that if the decision-making body has at least two members and at least three options to decide among, then it is impossible to design a social welfare function that satisfies all these conditions at once. Imagine how this influences bigger samples. That is clearly why in any voting system the society will never be able to rank preferences to meet the social welfare objective. It must explain why and how dictatorships in theory overcome this dilemma but beneficial dictatorships don't ever seem to exist. The theorem would also explain that even in a democratic system, the successful party has to effectively adopt dictatorship rules to rank the preferences. It also explains why very few, if any, countries have more than two effective political parties that have any impact in an election. And why elected government then practices effective dictatorship.

Back to the carbon issue. Gore hypothesises that if we keep producing large man-made quantities of carbon dioxide, we would eventually tip the balance of the world's ecosystems and all fry or drown in the resulting wake. This resulted in the decisions to cut coal and oil burning, which also happened to coincide with the views of the anti-nukes who believe the world can get by with renewables only. It all depends on what we mean by getting by. Massive industrial activity reduction and effectively a return to smaller populations and a lowering of living standards. Is it likely the voters will ever accept that? Not in their own back yard, that is for sure.

What is really driving carbon (dioxide) reduction? Suddenly governments have seen the opportunity for more taxation, and that seems to me to be the real driver. This must be the case because very few if any decision-makers in governments have really undertaken to study the real impact of carbon taxes on everything else in the structures which put them into power. Do we really believe taxes collected in the name of carbon will ever be used to develop carbon reduction programmes or greening programmes?

Interesting is the current debate on whether it is greener to run a Toyota Prius or a Hummer SUV. The arguments are as wide as the evident inability of the protagonists to apply well developed engineering, economic and cognitive logic in a collective sense. Each appears to have made up the mind and then searched for the evidence to prove the desired outcome. None of the studies I have read appear to have been done with an objective evaluation based on good engineering principles where the parameters are clearly defined and are considered to be equitable. What in fact is equitable anyway? In the end, it will be a mainly emotional consideration in that buying a Prius is a self-conscious life-style statement. Even if a Hummer was the more carbon efficient over its lifetime, it may be seen to be a bit socially unacceptable. But those who really fancy a Hummer will buy it anyway and then argue the case against global warming.

I guess we do not really know if our own carbon dioxide production will damage the ecology. We have scant evidence and the correlations are unconvincing. However, what if it is right and we choose now not to believe it? Can we take the risk? And the tax is too good for governments not to believe in it. Then there is equally uncertain evidence that the earth is actually cooling down.

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Managing SAIMechE as a business

Posted By Chris Reay, Thursday, 30 June 2011


Members will have recently received their invoices for the subscriptions to the Institution for 2011-2012 financial year. One may wonder how the rates are created for these. I have been on Council for many years primarily on the communications committee and specialist group roles and have also been very involved in training issues being the CPD functions and the new Professional Development Programme (PDP). I thought it worthwhile to reflect on the challenges that have faced the role of Council over this time.

For as far back as I remember the debate as to whether the Institution should appoint a CEO or Director has taken place. It inevitably resulted into a no-go status because of the "chicken or egg” situation. Could we afford to have one or could we afford to continue without one? Well, as you all know, in mid 2007 Council decided to take the bold and calculated step and seek a CEO, and in October 2007, Vaughan was appointed. So we have sufficient experience now to evaluate whether the decision was worthwhile.

In my own view, and this would I am certain be supported by the current Council and many members, it is quite amazing that it took so long to have this function established. How we managed on the voluntary basis alone is only now showing as to how we simply teetered along with no real visibility or force and effect in the engineering space. Continuity of objectives and projects was always in jeopardy. Appointing a full time CEO to drive and manage the administration and the projects that have been decided by Council was the best decision Council have made in 109 years!

One can witness how well Council is now using its limited time to address and debate and decide on critical issues. We can see and feel the active participation in important matters of mechanical engineering. We have a very pleasant office and boardroom in Bruma opposite the ECSA office (Anisa and Lynne) that works efficiently and happily and where any member is always welcome. The Events Department and Branch office (Linda and Carey) are set up in the offices in Kloof, Durban, and the Western Cape activities are under the capable hands of Bev. The recent Mpumalanga Branch is starting to show how it made sense to establish this entity.

However, where we are seeing the impact of the proper structuring of the administration is in the involvement and visibility of SAIMechE in the critical issues such as Identification of Engineering Work (IDoEW), the PDP, the strategies to address the scarce skills dilemma and the participation in various committees and conferences that affect the engineering profession, and in particular the new ECSA Candidate Phase Training committee.

Then there is the much improved control and financial management of all the administrative functions including the expanding training events schedule and validation of CPD courses.

Let's come back then to the issue of subscription rates. Council has formulated a budget model that ensures that the strategies, objectives and operations must run properly and can only be done with a balanced and competent set of office bearers. Accordingly this budget ensures that the cost of running this structure are covered with the members' subscriptions and with these all operating to plan, the Institution will accrue surplus funds from the various activities that are designed to be benefits to the members. Every member will be affected by the era of IDoEW and many by the revised Candidate Phase requirements for registration. The Institution will be seeking Mentors that can be drawn from our semi or retired group on a paid basis. There are plans in place to have industry recall many of the older engineering resources to assist with the scarce skills and mentoring issues. The CEO is keeping a close eye on the changing SETA situation.

If you are registered with ECSA, you can become a member of SAIMechE at almost the same fee due to the discount given by ECSA to registered members of the voluntary associations. Registration will soon become the norm for any defined work type.

Think about this: if every existing member recruited one new member, we could virtually halve the subscriptions rate. So the message is: Each one get one.

Hopefully none of the targets will have the philosophy of Groucho Marx who once said he would not join a club that would have him as a member!

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Efficiency and conscious leadership

Posted By Chris Reay, Friday, 10 June 2011

A recent international study comparing management by efficiency measurement versus management by creative leadership perhaps defines a new paradigm in the eternal search for excellence in the business world. According to the author of this particular research exercise comparing the standard measure of business success i.e. the efficiency index as perceived by the accountant, and the degree of conscious, creative leadership, the research uncovered strong correlations between what we call ‘consciousness based behaviours’ and corporate ‘success’. The work found that a 'Creative' orientation and related behaviours are dominant in organisations that perform well; while a 'Reactive' orientation and behaviours dominate in poorly performing organisations.

This article was of interest to me largely due to the dominant characteristic that emerges in the world of recruitment of engineering resources. Candidates seldom, if ever, appear to evaluate anything but the remuneration factor of a new opportunity. And one cannot blame them. This is not surprising or unexpected in a world where financial efficiency reigns supreme, and where we seem to live in, as the research identifies, in a state of crisis - environmentally, financially, politically and socially. We live in a state of turmoil, of huge systemic challenge. We are bombarded with new information every second. Never before has the rate and pace of change been so radical. Our unconscious consumption has caused great rifts in the human race. Compulsive consumerism, obsessive competitiveness, all driven by fear - fear of lack, fear of threat, fear of failure, fear of loss.

We are, as with all professions, so embroiled in this reality that we probably do not see any alternative to the style of our existence. It is so in-your-face on a daily basis that we need to take a two week break each year, if we are in a position to do so, to possibly feel another side of life away from the work place. Is this "fear reality” we live in intrinsic to the way life has to be lived? Is the work place so temporal and fickle that a salary increase of a few percent will drive a decision to move when we have absolutely no idea of the other facets of the new employer? Is it sub-consciously undertaken on the hope that these other factors will be better than they are where we work at the moment, or are the pressures of pecuniary need so great that we will do whatever to keep up with the value of financial efficiency?

The process of procuring human assets has changed dramatically in recent times. Technology has radically changed the process. Cloud computing, internet based communication, social networks have in effect introduced a new operating system in our lives, a bit like comparing DOS with Windows in the human behaviour arena. We can identify a new job opportunity in minutes, apply, get response, get selected largely on the technical fit, and then be in the new employer’s world in a few weeks. How well do we, or can we, judge the other factors of the employer’s environment? What is the leadership style of the new employer? Should this be a metric we can identify? Does the half hour interview enable this to be evaluated?

The article talks of the Consciousness Quotient of company leadership using that as the factor that emerges when plotted against financial success to be the quality now required in business to attract and keep the best human assets. Companies glibly and often talk of their human assets being their most valuable investment, and then show how little serious attention is paid to that.

One hopes in the engineering world that while opportunities for engineering resources should keep growing, that the focus on the employer to get the best and keep them by showing the right leadership will be a pattern of change. Conscious dedication to training and development and involvement will a good start in achieving this rather than poaching the resource from the neighbour who does.

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Our own tragedy of the commons

Posted By Chris Reay, Friday, 20 May 2011

 What is the tragedy of the commons and how could it possibly be considered to apply to our engineering environment? For those who have never heard of it or understood its meaning, it is easy to look it up and read up on the various ways it has impacted and will impact on the world in general. Essentially we should look out for it whenever a distribution system malfunctions that distributes or makes available to the users a facility that is regarded as available to all to be used without limit and to which the users do not contribute. The credo is "to each according to his or her needs”. Nature provides.


I see the tragedy of a commons result emerging in the South African technical resources environment. Not quite as easy to understand as the access to free air and water that is now believed to be threatened by toxic overload produced by the common user. No, the analogy is evident by the common employer, believing that the supply of experienced and competent engineering resources is available to all and will continue to be available without considering that each time a useful resource is employed by the employer to grow his business, the common pool of that level of resources declines. The issue then is if one takes account of the skill sets that are required in that resource pool, it behoves the employer to have a structured methodology of enhancing that skill set to replace that which ages out of the system. We are making the fairly obvious assumption that the economy is meant to be growing.

There is a widespread belief that it is up to the tertiary institutions to look after the supply of feedstock and training of these resources. Once graduated, the resource then seeks out employers who may offer employment but the active training of same is carried out by relatively few organisations when one considers the size of the total employer pool. Those that signed up a Commitment and Undertaking with the Engineering Council are the main contributors. It is the best we have. Do you know that with all the efforts so far to increase the number of black Professional Engineers, we only have 825 as at February 2011 out of 14659 Pr Engs in total?

Currently registered to undertake the EIT phase is 5514 in total, with blacks making up 1505. An encouraging growth here, but the rate of all applicants for EIT is growing and will grow faster as Identification of Engineering Work is promulgated and registration is then a requirement and not a nice-to-have. We need to rapidly make all these employable.

The most disturbing and silly belief in industry is that Engineers in their 50s and 60s are "too old”. Guess who decides this? HR. All so entranced with their own importance and convincing management that this is the right decision because of insurance and medical aid and pension issues, they appear quite unaware that this could be easily resolved by employing the mature Engineer on contract, and also have him supervise the trainee. I know of and have seen the mature Engineer run rings around the youngsters in the factory and on site, identifying non-conformances and improvements that the younger Engineers would not even notice. With the critical need for the experienced designer, supervisor and mentor for the trainee Engineer, who I ask, is going to provide this as we grow the economy? Does HR realise as a duty to its management, it must understand that as time moves on, so does the intellectual capacity built on experience move on? My message to HR: overcome your normalcy bias and help prevent the tragedy in our own commons.

I do not accept their excuses any more, and am intending to lead our own Tunisian style revolution to get this age fixation on Engineers out of the system. Just for starters, an ECSA based EIT committee has been formed to design, implement and co-ordinate the efforts of the VAs, the training community and the funding sources to be made available from the skills development levies of our engineering employers that go the NSF and the SETAs. This programme will require the services of mentors and clearly they will be drawn from our mature group. Join the revol.

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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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Stories from the engine room (Feb 2011)

Posted By Chris Reay, Friday, 11 March 2011

I have decided to relate some experiences from my current business activities that consist of a fair mix of recruitment and placement of engineering resources, training, mentoring and consulting assignments, and some services to the Institution and the Engineering Council. All in all, it mixes pretty well, with the common focus being on engineering skills acquisition, evaluation, communication, collaboration, development and the steady building of a large, live database of new graduates of all disciplines and active and retired engineering resources . The major part is interfacing. with employers and candidates. Working in the engine room so to speak on a daily basis provides one with up -to-date information, change patterns, trends, behaviours and the supply and demand dynamics directly affecting the profession. So hopefully this is of some value. My very limited story, in a note form with comments, seems the most appropriate way to set this out.

  1. There are far too many agencies in the recruitment space. Many are not more than body shops, collecting CVs and submitting them out to all and sundry with little care as to job and profile alignment. Most claim to have expertise across many varied professions and trades. Few do as we do, focus only on the engineering profession and provide guidelines and assistance to employers and candidates as Professional Engineers can and should do. We supply the people part of the engineering business, just as other experts provide equipment.
  2. HR does enormous harm to the process of procuring Engineers. Employers who normally take great care in specifying a product, seeking out reputable suppliers, visiting their works and assisting the technical buyers will somehow avoid involvement and leave HR to do the work of handling dubiously worded job specifications, at times we have counted, to up to 40 separate agencies for one post! Why not align with selected specialist consultants who know the product and the profession, particularly in pre-planning future needs?
  3. A 24 year old recruiter in an agency will interview a 53 year old Professional Engineer and advise him he is too old for the job. It happens . If that is not the height of insult then what is? Our greatest engineering talent exists at this age and beyond, and it is being neglected at great risk of losing experiential skills.
  4. A common feature is how many candidates simply cannot spell, edit a CV, read the job specifications and who will apply for a position shortly after graduating that specifies 10-15 years experience in an engineering management role. This "give it a go” attitude can often comprise the bulk of applications.
  5. The time is past that employers, perhaps through the naivety of HR, can expect Mr or Ms Perfect to be standing on the street corner waiting for their call. The good ,experienced skills are in short supply and fully employed, are internationally mobile and proving it, and demand high remuneration to the surprise of the prospective employers who claim the candidate be to out of touch with the market. Well, I am not sure where HR gets their "market levels”, but invariably from historic tables issued a while ago with somewhat wide and unhelpful margins and weak descriptors. The difference is so evident that we are considering publishing a real-time remuneration survey for interested employers based on our own up to the minute information for the engineering profession, a sort of real-time remuneration survey.
  6. Then we must take up some concerns with line management. How many are really equipped to make a valid judgment from a CV alone? Many are so busy that they have not viewed them or done so in such a hurry with no reverting questions and simply accept or reject them. I have witnessed a small pump getting more adjudication time than a senior engineering candidate!
  7. Near-fit of candidate to the specified role does not succeed. The belief that Mr or Ms Perfect must be found is the only way. We have no time to train up the near-fits. I am appalled at the lack of training, mentoring and acceptance of this within the crisis we face in scarce skills today. Industry needs a major wake-up if it is to collectively be in a position to manage a serious growth development in the economy.
  8. If our own SA Engineers knew the remuneration that foreign expats are earning on our Eskom projects, they would have a fit. And many of our own are equally able to provide the skills and expertise.
  9. As Engineer Placements, we are working closely with Voluntary Associations and ECSA to develop structured training and mentoring for the EIT programme required after graduation. The intent is to seek out retired Engineers to act as paid mentors with programmes endorsed via the SAIMechE Professional Development Programme with funding from the revised NSDS3 and industry. At least Minister Ebrahim Patel, in his call to train 30,000 more Engineers, should be grateful and hopefully actively supportive. Pigs may fly though.

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The Patel Puzzle (Jan 2011)

Posted By Chris Reay, Thursday, 03 February 2011

"Government is targeting the training of at least 30,000 additional engineers by 2014” was announced by Economic Development Minister Patel last month. One has to "interpret” the meaning of this as it conveys many possible options. It also pre-supposes that required national projects will be activated (R800 billion in infrastructure in 3 years?) as the current project load is dismal.

  1. The Minister wants 30,000 more graduates on the market in 3 years time.

Since engineering is at least a 4 year course, then somehow he is "arranging” to have 30,000 more 2nd year students enter the tertiary system in 2011, or find 30,000 additional pass-capable students in the current streams. Since graduates are not useful Engineers until they have completed the 3 year EIT period, does he mean Engineers or graduates? Pass to next option.

  1. The Minister wants 30,000 new entrants to the first year of the engineering course.

He should drop in on Blade Nzimande and place an order for 30,000 extra maths and science higher level school leavers without delay. Then check the capacity of the secondary school teachers and tertiary institutions to accommodate this. If impossible, pass to next option.

  1. The Minister wants 30,000 employable Engineers to enter the labour market.

The Minister together with the cabinet and ANC policy makers must scrap affirmative action, employers wake up to the fact that 60 plus year olds are as good as Engineers as you can get (which would also mean scrapping the useless HR departments staffed with 20 plus year old non-technical somethings) and putting the retrenched and early retired Engineers back into the system to both run jobs and mentor the new graduates in structured EIT programmes to achieve the training. Possible, but improbable. Pass to next option.

  1. The Minister recognises that most of the 30,000 should be employed by government, parastatal and provincial sectors to enable these bodies to be able to deliver projects to the citizens of SA. Capacity at state "owner's team” level is so low that it is virtually dysfunctional. Ask SAICE, CESA and SAFCEC.

But this means cadres have to be removed, and if any of these are good at anything at all, they should be employed as road repair gangs, and using the chain-gang system would be appropriate as they are guilty of wasting taxpayers' money, doing nothing for service delivery, and failing to execute the required operations and maintenance of the country's assets while occupying cushy salaried positions that only qualified engineering resources should have had. However, this is clearly not seen as necessary by ANC politicians (until service delivery protests, riots and citizen management reach nationwide crisis levels). Pass onto next option.

  1. The Minister is not certain where the training should happen but believes there is a need.

That at least would be a realistic option. One would think that he has observed that the supply of Engineers takes place along a long-term and well established supply chain. It starts at the age of about 6 when the prospective Engineer has the inclination, interest and role models to guide him or her into it as a career move. It is probably in the genes of those that adopt the profession successfully. Making up numbers with feedstock that has no inherent, natural inclination and desire to be an Engineer just wastes the supply chains' resources.

  1. The Minister's intentions are well meant and he intends to consult with the engineering profession in order to address the real issues.

The Minister may wish to identify the real shortages and remove the pointless political policies (BBBEE for one in its present form) where points for skills development count less than having a figurehead black director on the company letterhead. The NSF's unspent money can be directed via programmes managed by the Voluntary Engineering Associations to up-skill new engineering graduates, technologists and technicians. The need is agreed, but the action is lacking. At least the Minister has realised one thing: skills are in a major crisis, largely created by his own party's idealism and inability to educate or train for the required, competent national capacity. Industry must also wake up and get training instead of expecting the perfect resources to be eternally waiting for their call. Can the profession please be consulted on how to get this training done as it needs to be developed right through the supply chain?

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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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Using Available Skilled Capacity (Oct 2010)

Posted By Chris Reay, Monday, 08 November 2010

Skills shortage is an amorphous concept that encapsulates many specific components, but at the heart of the matter is the idea that the demand for certain skills exceeds supply. Instead of elaborating on the past and all the reasons that we have a degree of skills shortages, it serves us better to contemplate how to move forward.

If we look ahead and assemble some sort of connect between the demand status and the supply, this must include that which we experience at present i.e. the day to day obvious difficulties in locating suitable skills as well as the estimated demand that would arise from future growth policy.


It should not be beyond us to intuitively identify the type of skills we will need to support an industrial or social development policy, or one that in our case should be implemented to reduce the current high levels of unemployment and its looming deterioration.

Government has via its usual unsupported spin decreed that unemployment will be halved by 2014. The problem with that statement is that is has no rational change model to convince me that it will happen. In fact unless there are some radical interventions in education and skills development, I predict that unemployment will in fact get worse, not better.

A major, if not the major, constraint on enabling some fast-track scale up of all technical skills is the lack of the redeployment of the large numbers of retired, retrenched, emigrated and disillusioned engineering resources. Via structured NSF and private sector remunerated programmes we would not only add to the line roles in deficient organizations battling with the location of the perfect candidate, but provide mentorship to the younger resources taken on in a trainee capacity. Here we talk of the proven need for experiential skills transfer.


I experience on a regular basis the rejection by clients of the recommendation to consider an Engineer, Technologist or Technician on the basis that they are "too old” at, for example, the age of 61! Not only is this ridiculous from the perspective of experience and the relevant qualifications, but it begs the question as to who makes this call? Well, Mr Perfect is not, even in the existing less active times, standing on the street corner awaiting your call. He has got a good job, and even if not busy, the smart employer is holding on to them because when the music really starts again, they will not be available. Most good resources only move to better positions. With acute shortages, this can become a sort of revolving door process that rapidly escalates pay levels

If one needs some evidence that the retired generation are well equipped to enhance skills development and in effect help to reduce unemployment, then do no more than study the success that the SAICE Projects team have achieved in providing retired Engineers including Septuagenarians and in some cases Octogenarians to the functions in local government and municipalities to mentor the Civil Technicians and provide line roles.

If we fail to implement this process across all engineering disciplines, then consider this. Time does not stand still. The demographics show a serious dip in well experienced and qualified engineering resources in the 30 to 50 age group. Then consider the numbers of candidate engineering resources emerging at the age 20 to 25. Who is going to mentor those academically qualified candidates who lack experience in the trenches? In the qualified artisan ranks, the average age is about 53. Studies estimate that some 20 % of artisans are less than 40 years old. The same profile exists across most disciplines.

So to those who live with the blinkered view that 60 plus year old Engineers are "too old”, consider that in most developed countries now the retirement age is being raised, not only to extend the use of skills, but also on the grounds that prescribed benefit pension systems have disappeared and working life has had to been extended. The paradigm has shifted.

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The Energy Conundrum (Sep 2010)

Posted By Chris Reay, Tuesday, 19 October 2010

 Electrical energy is the lifeblood of any country's economy and living standard, and the degree of development must inevitably be linked in direct proportion to its supply and consumption. With the pressure now growing to minimize the green gas effects of fossil based power generation, the move to renewables is gathering momentum. Added to this is the on-going dispute over nuclear power generation that is the only other form of large base-load technology with the exception of hydro power that is itself limited by the availability of sufficient water capacity.

While the battle between the reductions in fossil based power and nuclear continues with the usual largely misinformed input by the anti-nuclear protagonists, renewable energy is receiving a lot of attention in the forms of wind, solar, photovoltaic, biogas, wave and hydrogen. In SA, overlaying the issue is the impact of the large increases in the cost of traditional fossil based power created by the lack of vision and unbelievable naïveté displayed by the government in the years following the era in which we had surplus capacity in our fossil stations. Completely beyond comprehension was the belief by government that the independent power producers would suddenly emerge and be prepared to provide power at below cost, and certainly at tariffs that at the time meant a negative return on investment.

When the reality of the situation finally hit home through the load shedding debacle, we were then faced with the challenge of returning to the large "six pack” stations that were the norm for Eskom and which now had to be resurrected hurriedly, the costs of which now meant massive annual tariff hikes that will be substantial for the next five years.

The option of additional nuclear plants such as Koeberg seemed to feature in a sort of Nero-fiddling playback, and then we decided we had to dump the PBMR after spending enormous development costs and creating what must be substantial intellectual property that will, in the true form of these things, never re-emerge other than with competitors who will attract our brainpower.

The next amazing feature of this now manic-level response to the power challenge appears to be another illusion of adequacy in assuming we know how to plan ahead with renewables. One such illusion is the "plan” to have 10,000 GWh per annum of renewable capacity installed and available by 2013. This statement is reported in Engineering News on 23 August 2010. "Energy Minister Dipuo Peters was confident that South Africa would reach the target of producing 10 000 GWh of renewable energy by 2013, as set out in the renewable energy white paper of 2003. The target was said to represent about 4% of South Africa's total generation capacity”.

Given the 28 months left until the start of 2013 by which time the capacity must be installed, commissioned and connected to the grid which would have to be upgraded to accept intermittent input from diverse locations, then being very optimistic and providing 16 months to set strategy, identify parties, get licenses, do the EIAs, design, procure and deliver to a prepared site, then we would have 12 months to erect 1425 x 2MW turbines based on a load factor of 20% to compensate for the varied wind blanket. This factor is the maximum the Americans and Europeans have found possible from wind power. On this basis then we would need to install and commission 1,6 x 2MW turbines every day of the year including weekends and public holidays.

Whilst I believe in ambitious targets, this just makes one wonder who is advising the Minister and just how easily it is to influence non-technical people with illusory numbers. It took the Danes, the most advanced wind power nation in the world, over 30 years to install less than 7000 GWh in their well wind provided environment and with a grid that had been developed to accept the vagaries of renewable supply.

One does wonder who is planning South Africa's future infrastructure and how many engineering knowledge sources are being consulted or charged with developing such plans. Not once have the powers-that-be approached the SAIMechE to provide input to any engineering based plans.

The uninformed, as Lang said, seem to adopt statistics like a drunk man uses a lamp post, mainly for support rather than illumination.

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Our World after the World Cup (Aug 2010)

Posted By Chris Reay, Tuesday, 14 September 2010
Updated: Thursday, 16 September 2010

My greatest hope is that the evident, positive and extraordinary atmosphere, energy charge and positive outlook that have emerged as a result of the way we staged the World Cup will serve to enable us to believe in ourselves and our abilities to reach the best standards for SA. Every citizen, and in our case, every engineering resource, has the opportunity and an obligation do something to get a new show on the road. We simply must not fall into a state of post-party hangover or depression, or back to business as usual.

I am personally tired of observing and commenting on so much of our past failures in this leader column. How many of them are actually easily enabled to be turned around and developed for the benefit of SA citizens? If we can project manage the WC with all its first-time challenges, why can't we get the relatively straight forward function of municipal service delivery right? The root cause is clear. Get rid of lousy, incompetent, unqualified, corrupt management; fire the officials who seem incapable of delivering, and are misusing funds. No more paid suspension and jobs for pals. But let's do it. Time to get private power producers going. Time to get the Acts amended that mess our potential to exploit our minerals. Time to get effective engineering training going. Get measures agreed to radically reduce the massive unemployment level. We will go bankrupt at the rate we pay more receivers of social benefits than have jobs. Reducing unemployment is our biggest challenge. Here is a thought, though. It comes from a recent SAIEE Presidential address.

"If one is looking for modern examples of the good old fashioned engineering approach to economic development, one needs to look to the East. When President Hu of China appointed his first cabinet in 2002, every one of them was an Engineer. Perhaps this in part explains China's ongoing extraordinary economic growth and industrialization”.

So, Members, how shall we go for the world cup in transforming a system that has been taking us for a ride for too long? A very positive development has just been announced and which exemplifies the ability of a lot of adversarial parties to get together and formulate a new deal all with a common goal. This is the recent mining commitment plan which followed the Citibank International report that SA sits on the most valuable mineral wealth in the world by far, streaks ahead of Russia and Australia in second and third places. We have R18 Trillion in an un-mined prize waiting for initiative, co-operation, funding, innovation, supporting infrastructure, skills development, employment and all the other benefits of a good, long term plan. Even Malema should be excited. It noticeably seems however to have eluded the government's own planning commission, but we all know how evident that has been.

Power and energy. Big plans now in hand for private power generation, and additionally an exciting development in advanced waste coal carbon combustion technology with almost no carbon footprint. Unless co-generation gets going, then any major mining and industrial initiatives will not have the power due to Eskom's limitations.

Can we catalyse the World Cup energy into ongoing action? It is up to everyone to make it happen. Tourism just has to escalate, which means major options for the service industry. I heard countless comments from foreign visitors at Cape Town's V& A waterfront at the semi-final on a beautiful evening that it must be the best all-round place for a World Cup.

The new SAIMechE website has the functions to enable interaction and debate. Can this connectivity and our a new feeling of optimism improve our collective advance into getting Engineers into the main arena? Sceptics, step aside. Let the game begin.

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The World at Large (Jul 2010)

Posted By Chris Reay, Tuesday, 14 September 2010

A recent presentation by Investec Bank on the status of the world economy and the investment position shows that SA is in a lot better condition than many developed and emerging economies. Thankfully, whether by design or not, we were saved from the direct effects of the credit crisis by the Credit Act, our traditionally high but realistic interest rates and relatively conservative banking system. In the USA it is estimated that some 30% of homes have mortgage liabilities that exceed the value of the assets themselves. Millions of toxic loans comprising the structured investment vehicles of securitized assets whose values cannot be determined remain in the system as do the credit default swaps, the ultimately crazy and disastrous process of gambling with insurance products on assets you do not own. And Europe now shows serious bankruptcy cracks.

A well presented explanation of the build-up and collapse of the world credit markets is provided in a book called the Perfect Recession which shows the analogy with the causes of the Perfect Storm that destroyed so much of the east coast of the USA in 1991. It identifies the coincidental phasing of some 12 independent effects, that happening on their own, would normally pass by unnoticed.

How should SA emerge from the recession? Investec convincingly pointed out that unemployment was our biggest threat, a feature that we have to solve ourselves. No bailout is available for that. How well is SA creating an environment that encourages the entrepreneur and the small businesses that are the backbone of growth in any economy? If SA were in effect a business corporation, would you invest in it when presented with some of the following attributes in a strategic plan? The Planning Commission believes it is acceptable to have a two and a half year sabbatical before it needs to put any plan forward (one year to form, 18 months before delivery). An integrated energy policy , crucial to confidence and forward planning, does not exist. So what do we have to consider?

Labour market and labour laws: most employers try to automate where they can to eliminate labour that has first world rights in a third world environment. No hire and fire here that built most successful economies. Competitiveness: low down on the world scale and dropping. Education of citizens: like the curate's egg, good in many parts, horrible in many others. Our private schools are as good as you can get, and need to be nurtured to keep that standard. Many government schools in general need a big kick just to get the teachers to class in time. Even the Minister is shocked, and that says something. Energy and power: per the new Eskom edict, the 25% increase will now happen 5 years in a row. Plug that into your cost planning. Effective skills development: blank screen. Some skills are marginally available while the world recovers and many projects end in SA. I place Engineers as a business and interact every day with employers and candidates; if you are not relating to your future skills need, you may be in trouble because the really good ones are still scarce. Too many employers of engineering resources believe Mr. Perfect is waiting on the street corner for the call. The huge intellectual capital tied up in retired-age Engineers remains unutilised due to a belief that these skills reside in the 30 to 50 age category. We need more effective Candidate Engineer training and paid mentoring, as well as a lot more CPD than the minimum required for registration credits to help keep the institutional memory in the system.

There is big hope for tourism if we do not mug or steal from too many visitors. The World Cup should be a great event and I believe SA has done well against the forebodings of many critics. It could do wonders for putting us on the map, perhaps bringing skills (back) into the country, but we have to energise ourselves beyond the revenues of tourists. Will the intangible benefits of exposure and national identity outweigh the massive cost to SA of the event?

We need a game plan as a country. Where is it, Mr President and Mr Manuel? Let us not find that while we survived the recession, we lost the way to compete in the recovery.

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Infrastructural Entropy (Jun 2010)

Posted By Chris Reay, Tuesday, 14 September 2010

I guess it would be futile to try and educate politicians about the concept of entropy because it is a scientific and engineering term that would immediately send them off on their next overseas trip to rather pursue some pointless and costly party interest. How else does one get the message across to them that unless they put some energy into the closed system called the county's infrastructure consisting of engineered assets, constructed facilities and orderly management, then the system will continue to lose any contained energy until it reaches equilibrium with nature's random "chaos”?

A disturbing recent commentary from the civil engineering profession contains a number of serious issues that illustrate the growing loss of skills and institutional energy from the infrastructure. Consider some of these:

SAFCEC (The SA Federation of Civil Engineering Contractors) says a large number of contract awards are being postponed by all tiers of government, while technical expertise is also lacking at government level to make the necessary decisions on project scopes and the awarding of tenders.

It is not that government does not have the money – it is that they are not spending it.

Overall, the tender adjudication postponement rate for the government sector on the whole, across all tiers, increased from 10% in the fourth quarter of 2008 to 23,2% in the fourth quarter of 2009.

Where it should take around three months to award a tender, it can now take up to a frustrating six months, which means skills and capacity in the industry lie dormant.

This is not about government not having the money – it is about not having the capacity to make decisions.

A recent report on municipalities says the combination of poor payment and higher levels of postponement suggest either a funding or management issue, both implying capacity constraints. Evidence of this is the latest municipal financial report, ending December 2009, which shows a debtor analysis in excess of 70% at 90 days or more, across all municipal departments.

One infrastructure agency had access to R27-billion in credit, but used only R300-million.

Institutional decay is fast becoming a massive drag on delivery.

SAFCEC adds that there is too much political involvement in decisions that should be driven by business principles, especially at local municipalities and parastatals. Corruption in the awarding of tenders is also a cause of concern. In fact it is rampant.

We know that the civil engineering profession tends to be a leading indicator of the project spend pattern. How will this impact on the mechanical and electrical professions? When local skills capacity lies dormant it will seek work outside the country, and coupled with the general skills shortage across most sectors, even in the unlikely event that the politicians do understand the second law of thermodynamics, then they will find that the source of providing the required energy has left home. The Local Government SETA's own scare skills list shows "absolute scarcity” ranking in all disciplines of engineering. Yet when one develops a programme to assist in the relief of this skills need, bureaucracy, politics, finger trouble and plain stupidity reign supreme.

I would to know if the Planning Commission which has taken so long to get its own planning act together, if at all is actually aware of the impact of a declining infrastructure and what they plan to recommend. The evidence now becoming common knowledge is the number of municipalities where the residents are forming their own bodies to run the local authorities' affairs, and it now indicates the response to the growing service delivery protests as political spin achieves no solution. As institutional memory and capacity decline, the citizens will take over to maintain any sense of stability and control. This is a vital trend raised in the Dinokeng scenarios. The ANC may just realise in due course that this is not good for voter support, and entropy cannot be reversed by denial and inactivity.

In the end, engineering skills will be the essential midwife to help with the birth of a new dispensation for the reversal of the energy loss. It is really that which creates the built environment.

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