Consulting engineering firms in South Africa are still struggling to fill critical levels of experience, without which the country will not manage the complex and demanding projects required for sustained growth.
“The most severe challenge lies in filling the ‘middle’ level of professional experience,” said Vis Reddy, managing director of SRK Consulting. “This refers to those engineers and scientists with 10 to 15 years of experience, who are moving into highly responsible positions.”
Reddy noted that, as the older and more experienced consultants retire, the sector has not been able to fully close this gap. While the recent strong performance of the mining industry has been a saving grace for the economy, for instance, it has stretched the capacity of the consulting sector. SRK has been very busy over the past year or two, and has experienced a general shortage of experienced senior professionals who play a key role in project teams.
“At the same time, our younger engineers and scientists are stepping up and making a growing contribution across the board,” he said. “The development of this younger cohort results from our concerted efforts to identify talent and nurture it within the company.”
He pointed out that these staff members now have five to ten years or more of mentored experience, and many are becoming professionally registered.
“We have been actively nurturing young talent, using our more experienced staff to mentor our younger entrants,” he said. “This has already put us in a stronger position than where we were just five years ago.”
Nonetheless, it remains an important medium term to long term goal to build stronger capability in SRK’s middle tier engineers and scientists; these are professionals with 12 to 15 years of experience.
Among the initiatives underway is a pilot programme based on the International Women in Mining (IWiM) mentorship scheme. This is focused on mid-tier staff who are likely to be the future leaders within the business.
“Under this scheme, for instance, I will be mentoring a colleague in our UK office – who is an exploration geologist whose role is expanding from a purely technical focus into more management involvement,” he said. “Programmes like this support our internal culture of nurturing future leaders.”
He emphasised that consulting engineers had to remain relevant to the market’s demands, demanding that capacity be built to contribute to the country’s infrastructure needs. This is vital in both the private and public sectors.
“One side of the coin is human resource development, while the other side is ensuring no compromises in technical excellence,” said Reddy.
Although the rate of public sector contracts being offered to the market was still only a trickle, he said there were some green shoots in the civils infrastructure space. Certainly there would be an urgent need for engineering input in rebuilding the damaged infrastructure in KwaZulu-Natal after the devastating floods.
“This will be a good test of our sector’s capacity to meet challenges like these,” he said. “From SRK’s point of view, our teams have been mobilising to support this response; our offices in Durban and Gqeberha, for instance, have traditionally played an important role in the municipal infrastructure space.”