Unless infrastructure spending increases in South Africa, we will lose the capacity to offer young professionals in the engineering and construction industries opportunities to acquire skills and experience.
That’s doubly ironic. There are many black construction and engineering graduates without the jobs they so desperately need to gain experience and move on in their careers. Also, South Africa desperately needs the kind of infrastructure the construction industry can provide.
There should be enough work for everyone, big and small, for a long, long time. Instead, the market is depressed, and many construction and engineering companies are filling their order books beyond our borders.
I get hits on my LinkedIn posts all the time, and most of them are from young people who want to be civil engineers, quantity surveyors and the like. Most of them have already graduated. The talent is out there – all they need is the experience to excel and contribute to infrastructure growth in South Africa.
While we can send the younger construction professionals beyond our borders to gain experience, this carries with it the possibility that they will build lives for themselves outside South Africa. That does not bode well for the development of in-country talent and capacity.
Basil Read does its bit towards exposing young professionals to an array of work experiences. We have a professional registration programme that assists our young engineers, quantity surveyors, safety officers and construction managers achieve their professional registration at various industry councils and professional bodies regulating the built environment. This gives them international recognition, among other benefits.
Also, we have partnered with Letaba Management Services to provide mentorship and guidance to our young talent along their career path towards gaining their professional status. This ranges from one-on-one advisory meetings to reviewing their training and experience. It takes about five years for these young individuals to obtain their professional status. This is a step beyond graduation that opens doors to better jobs, higher remuneration and, in some cases, recognition of competence in countries outside South Africa.
The challenge is that we cannot possibly soak up all the graduates out there. Neither can our competitors. There are just not enough projects on the go.
What would help is if the government starts spending enough on infrastructure projects, including repair and maintenance projects, to meet South Africa’s enormous backlog, which is estimated to run into trillions of rands.
That’s not to say the government is doing nothing.
The South African Institution of Civil Engineers’ latest infrastructure report card, published in 2017, shows that over the past two decades, the state has spent over R2.5 trillion on infrastructure. That’s an annual average of 6% of GDP.
According to the civil engineering body, most of this spending was on new infrastructure, but it has not been enough. In addition, not enough attention has been paid to preventative maintenance and this has only served to hasten the deterioration of existing infrastructure.
Maintenance is critical, so it is good to see it being prioritised in the government’s future plans. For some infrastructure it may be too late, as evidenced in the news this month that the Western Cape’s Tygerberg Hospital needs to be replaced. The provincial government spent R700 million on maintenance at the hospital in recent years and still it was too little too late.
We are not without sympathy for the government. We all know the story: South Africa has suffered weak economic growth for many years; tax revenue is reduced; there is less money to go around; and South Africa still faces myriad challenges of poverty and inequality.
The flip side of this is that too much public money is misspent. Last month Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu revealed that in 2017 irregular spending by municipalities across South Africa hit R16 billion, a 50% increase from the previous year. It’s mind-boggling, and it is often money that was earmarked for infrastructure development.
There are places in the public sector where young construction professionals can get experience, and state-owned entities Eskom and Transnet do sterling work here. These entities, just like us in the private sector, cannot do this alone. Not at the rate of infrastructure spending we are experiencing now. Things will have to speed up.
We appreciate and acknowledge the need for transformation of the construction sector, but this does not have to be done by solely focusing on shutting out those companies that are considered to be the “big players” in the industry.
Currently, the government has increased its focus on awarding infrastructure tenders to small, black-owned construction and engineering companies. Indeed this is essential, but if government spending was optimal there would be more work than these companies could possibly do, and – the large companies would be able to participate too, providing for organic growth and expansion.
There is more space in these companies to train and grow young professionals – especially black graduates – under the mentorship of more experienced professionals. That’s because the larger companies have, in general, operated in the market longer, meaning there is a greater depth of experience within them. This would, in turn, allow for the creation of a pipeline of talent that will form the future industry leadership, and transform the sector.
South Africa’s economy and its citizens would benefit greatly. As would our construction-sector graduates.
The just-graduated construction sector professionals I meet can contribute a great deal more than we often think they can. We just have to create a platform that offers young people spaces to work and gain experience, and allow them to. For that we need growth in the sector.
• Richard Simpson is head of construction at Basil Read