Infrastructure sector must up its game to meet skills challenge

The number of civil engineers graduating from South African universities has soared in recent years, and in-company training in the infrastructure sector has also accelerated. But by executive search firm Landelahni Business Leaders says much more needs to be done if the skills shortage is not to jeopardise crucial bulk infrastructure projects.
Landelahni CEO Sandra Burmeister says South African infrastructure capital investment has soared to an estimated R900-billion as the country invests in service delivery and World Cup-related infrastructure.
She adds that the sector experienced 15.1% growth in 2006 and in 2007 topped that at 21.3%. Employment in the infrastructure sector has doubled from 4% to 8% of total employment.
“Globally, research shows that skills shortages are the biggest constraint on construction growth, with project and contract managers, tradesman and engineers cited as the scarcest of all skills,” says Burmeister. “South Africa is well known for its engineering skills, and the infrastructure sector is competing for skills in the global resourcing market.”
The 2008 Landelahni Infrastructure Sector Survey researched 82 companies with just over 214 268 employees, representing 40% of permanent employment in the infrastructure sector, scoped as the electricity, water, waste, road, rail, and ports sectors, as well as consulting engineers, major construction companies able to deliver projects of over R30m, large JSE-listed construction companies and large suppliers to the construction industry, such as cement producers.
Employment equity and gender
The number of blacks in top management in the infrastructure sector has increased significantly over the past two years, from 16.2% in 2005 to 28,8% in 2007. Blacks in senior management increased from 12% to 32.4% and black professionals from 20.6 to 41.3%.
“The significant increase in black representation in these core functions, now at an average of 35%, is encouraging,” says Burmeister. However the sector lags considerably behind the all-industry average.
Infrastructure by its nature is a male-orientated sector with a large proportion of its operations teams being based on remote sites. Nonetheless, the number of women in top management in the infrastructure sector has increased significantly over the past two years, from 4.3% in 2005 to 12.9% in 2007.
Female senior management increased from 6.4% in 2005 to 19.5% in 2007 and female professionals from 10.1 to 22%. “Female employees in core roles have increased significantly from 5% to 15% over this period,” says Burmeister. “This has been influenced by gender equity programmes in parastatal power, water, road and rail utilities. However, again the sector lags significantly behind the all-industry average.
“Throughout the sector, those positive trends that have emerged have no doubt been brought about by black economic empowerment legislation and tender criteria for government spend on infrastructure.”
Skills development: Professionals and graduates
In South Africa, between 1998 and 2006, a total of 35 511 engineers graduated across all disciplines – but the actual real number has dropped. There is now just 14 234 professional engineers registered across all disciplines in SA – 1 100 fewer than there were10 years ago.
Recent data shows a slightly upward trend in engineering graduates between 1998 and 2004. And there was a significant increase in engineering graduates between 2005 and 2006 (almost a 1 000 year-on-year increase).
Against this background, civil engineering graduates have increased from 507 in 2003 to 1199 in 2006, with the proportion of blacks remaining fairly constant at around 70% to 75%, and women remaining an increasing but small minority. “Efforts by the infrastructure sector to attract students are clearly paying off,” says Burmeister.
Skills development: Artisans
South Africa is experiencing a severe shortage of well-qualified, competent and experienced artisans. The Joint Initiative for Priority Skills Acquisition (Jipsa) suggests that at least 12 500 artisans should be produced each year over the next four years to meet demand, making a total of 50 000 over four years.
The number of artisans tested across all trades increased from 15 000 in 1970 to 26 500 in 1986, while those who passed trade tests increased from 6 000 to 13 500. From 1986, however, the numbers tested dropped to 9 041, and those who passed dropped to a low 3 222, or 42%.
“This has far-reaching cost implications,” says Burmeister. “The average cost of artisan training is R120 000 over three years. At a 42% pass rate, 120 000 candidates need to be trained over three years to generate the required 50 000 qualified artisans. The cost of training 120 000 artisans at R120 000 each comes to a total of R14.4-billion. This must be seen against the current 1% training levy which generates a mere R6-billion a year.
“Artisan training requires a significantly increased investment by both government and private sector. The current artisan population is aging, with an average age of 50-55 years. So we should not merely be training for current needs, but also to replace the aging workforce.”
The infrastructure sector has increased training spend significantly and is well above the all-industry average at all levels (see chart 5). However, bursary spend has fluctuated between 0,5% and 1% of payroll since the 1990s, but has evidenced an increase in rand terms over the past three years.
The number of black being trained is almost on a par or just below all industries, but the sector lags significantly on gender.
“The skills challenge in the sector is exacerbated by significant numbers of small and medium contractors that have little capacity to train and develop staff,” says Burmeister.
The lack of delivery at the Construction Education and Training Authority has compounded the problem, especially in respect of artisan training, and most firms are experiencing hiring issues as a result of the skills shortage. According to Burmeister, training is and will continue to be carried by large contractors, and parastatals in the sector.
Skills development
“Skills development takes place across a number of levels in any organisation, and the infrastructure sector includes a large component of technical and professional staffing,” says Burmeister. “It is therefore critical that, apart from developing leadership and management – as most organisations would, additional focus should be on graduates, professionals and skilled workers.
“The skills challenge is not over and will continue to be a challenge for the next 10 years, at least. The demand for skills in the infrastructure sector calls for a more innovative approach when recruiting – at all levels in the organisation.
“Employers can benefit from the transferability of skills; it is less costly to induct into the sector than to train from scratch. The return of retired and offshore contractors or foreign nationals to run infrastructure projects or act as coaches and mentors to up-and-coming young recruits should be pursued, although this is a short-term solution for the development of critical projects. We need to guard against short-term delivery at the expense of long-term skills development.
“Internal skills must be identified and assessed to determine competency levels and potential for investment. Creative investment in skills development is an economic imperative for a sustainable infrastructure sector.”
Remuneration packages have tripled and quadrupled over the past two years. “Contractors who are paid for expertise on a project-by-project basis are earning as much as 40% to 140% more than their permanently employed counterparts,” says Burmeister.
“Scarce skills incentives, shares, long-term incentives, performance bonuses and retention incentives may well continue to be the norm in the infrastructure sector. Despite the economic slowdown, skills premiums for specific core business activities may continue to rise.
“The only way to drive down the remuneration spiral is to invest now in the development of graduates and young and mid-tier professionals so as to help balance supply and demand in the longer term. To achieve this, executive incentives should be geared to increasing skills across the business, not just to advancing the bottom line.”
Career management
Traditionally the infrastructure sector has been conservative with slow career acceleration. However, there has been a shift in traditional upward career progression and a move to shorter tenure in key roles as well as a significant increase in contractors, according to Burmeister.
“Key staff and executive committees are younger than before, and their growth pace needs to be consistent. Accelerated development programmes are needed at every level of the organisation, with international exposure and skills exchanges.
“The infrastructure and construction sectors are ideally positioned to accelerate skills development on projects across the globe. International exposure and skills exchanges should be part of a broader exposure and retention strategy for managers and skilled professionals such as engineers and artisans.
“Given the spread of infrastructure investment, global resourcing strategies are crucial to the future of infrastructural development, allowing companies to share scarce resources across a multitude of projects.”