In this article written by Johann de Bruin, CEO of Erudite, De Bruin argues that South Africa has a chronic shortage of engineering skills, with just one engineer for every 3,100 people compared to developed economies such as the United Kingdom and United States of America, which boast one engineer for every 310 people.
The country faces two critical issues. First, there is substantial demand for a disproportionately low supply of young engineers. Second, newly qualified and talented young engineers often gravitate to higher-paying positions in the public sector and state-owned entities (SOEs) where they often fail to receive the opportunity to gain practical industry experience.
When Erudite was founded, one of our guiding principles was therefore to address the lack of mentorship opportunities in the public sector, as well as the inadequate emphasis on transformation among local engineering, procurement, and construction management (EPCM) companies.
The Erudite approach entails the recruitment of qualified young engineers, often sourced from different sectors, and equipping them with relevant experience and mining project development expertise beyond what they might receive elsewhere. Should they later choose to make the shift, they can carry their newfound engineering expertise to SOEs where they can make a real difference in the public sector.
As for young engineers still finding their place in the industry and building successful careers, there are two pieces of advice to keep in mind:
Don’t allow status and financial reward to drive your career decisions
The lure of a high starting salary within the public sector often proves too strong for young, qualified professionals to ignore. Unfortunately, SOEs tend to pay engineers very well and, as a result, employ top talent en masse, leading to an internal brain drain of sorts for the country’s private sector.
The issue is that SOEs rarely challenge or provide proper mentoring to these novice engineers, as used to be the case in previous generations. Young engineers generally stay with a state-owned entity for a decade or more, enjoying the prestige and wages that come with a senior position. But when they attempt to venture into the private sector to find gainful employment, their level of experience is often considerably lower than the industry standard, preventing them from achieving further growth.
Private sector EPCMs such as Erudite employ the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA) mentorship and training approach, which places young engineers under the guidance of an experienced senior engineer registered as a mentor with ECSA.
At Erudite, we onboard younger talent and throw them in the deep end from day one, but we provide them with the necessary support. We have found that engineers do not develop if they are not held accountable. They are given many engineering responsibilities from the start, which helps them grow and quickly learn to stand on their own two feet, but we provide them with the right training through involved, experienced, mentors.
While there may be a steep learning curve, we very quickly see them transition into well-rounded, effective members of any EPCM team.
Avoid regular job hopping
One career strategy often employed by younger generations is to change careers often, incrementally increasing their salaries with every move. This is particularly effective in careers that are high in demand such as engineering.
Although this may be a good strategy from a purely financial point of view, it can be detrimental to a young engineer’s personal development. In engineering, expertise often comes from a focused approach to learning, otherwise known as specialisation. Frequent career changes may prevent young engineers from fully immersing themselves in a particular field and grasping the intricacies of their chosen discipline, leading to a superficial understanding of their work.
They will not have the opportunity to see projects through from start to finish. This lack of continuity can hinder their ability to develop situational problem-solving skills specific to every phase of a project, or from developing a sense of ownership of their work.
Finally, job hoppers miss out on invaluable networking and mentoring opportunities. Moving between companies every one or two years disrupts the process of establishing meaningful connections, and finding mentors who are willing to provide ongoing guidance and support throughout each stage of their professional development.
Engineering will always be an in-demand vocation aimed at solving some of the world’s most pressing challenges, which makes it an ideal career option for young people concerned about their future. But, upon entering the job market, young engineers should take care before deciding which company to entrust with their development and future careers.
In the end, it’s important to make sure that you buy into the culture and ethos of your employer rather than focusing on the potential size of your pay packet. Erudite is very encouraged by the calibre of the league of young engineers that we have been able to attract to our family. They, and their ilk, truly are the future – not only of Erudite, but also the engineering industry throughout this continent.