SA a magnet for region’s engineers

By Mpho Tebele

GABORONE – ONE thing that Joe Modiri regrets is returning to Botswana after graduating with an Honours Degree in Applied Geology from the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) in South Africa.

Modiri’s disappointment is not unfounded. Some of his classmates and compatriots who remained in South Africa after completion of their studies in 2015 have been absorbed into the workplace.

But Modiri and scores of other graduates in other countries in the region are still struggling to find a job. The question is why?

The answer partly lies in a report by researchers at the University of Johannesburg, who found that SADC member states face serious disconnects between the knowledge and skills that their higher education systems provide graduates.

The report titled, “Mining-related National Systems of Innovation in Southern Africa”, explores the linkages between the national systems of innovation of Botswana, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe and their respective mineral extraction.

The World Bank says firmer commodity prices in 2016 could boost the economic growth prospects of most countries in the Sub Saharan Africa region. According to the World Bank’s Global Economic Prospects, the region is expected to grow 4.2 percent this year, from 3.4 percent in 2014.

The University of Johannesburg researchers’ report notes that analysis of intra-SADC student flow reveals that significant engineering skills development for the region is taking place in South Africa, but these skills tend to remain in South Africa.

“To a large extent, this can be explained by different economic opportunities in the home countries: engineering students from Botswana tend to return home to pursue employment in government or the mining sector, although employment opportunities in other economic activities are limited,” the report says.

It says Zimbabwean students are increasingly pursuing undergraduate and postgraduate studies in South Africa, where they remain, as a coping strategy to the decline of their education system and reduced opportunities with private firms and government.

“Zambia is the most negatively affected by the regional dynamics of the engineering education system because its students pursue post-graduate studies in South Africa and most do not return,” the report says.

Hence while investing public resources in its education system up to undergraduate levels, the report says, Zambia loses engineers with advanced tertiary degrees, which could feed back into the demand for lecturers, professionals and government officials.

“Poor employment conditions at the universities and the struggle to find business opportunities as individual professionals make returning a difficult choice for postgraduate students. This is particularly concerning as Zambia recorded high GDP growth rates during the past decade, 7.76 percent on average between 2004 and 2013, well above the 5 percent SSA average (World Bank 2016),” the report says.

The report notes that “South Africa taps into the flows of regional skills to address its own skills deficit. Hence, regional skills are employed in the engineering services sector and contribute significantly to South Africa’s research and development (R&D) and innovation capabilities.”

The report says very different dynamics, however, take place within these two sectors: South African R&D and innovation institutions tend to have a weak regional focus, with research areas and customers that are narrowly defined in terms of domestic interests, notwithstanding the demand for mining technologies across the region. Conversely, the report says, South Africa-based engineering firms have a strong regional outlook, irrespective of whether they are international or South African owned.

“Through these firms, regional engineers conduct projects in their own countries, but with little spill-overs into their domestic economies: sub-contracting and knowledge transfers are limited—notwithstanding the existence of local content measures in the legislation of neighbouring countries,” the report says.

At SADC level, the regional legal frameworks to support flows of skills and knowledge lag behind, the report says.

“For example, progress on the Regional Qualifications Framework (RQF) is hampered by the fact that countries first have to establish effective National Qualification Frameworks (NQFs),” the researchers found.

The report says while supporting SADC efforts for multilateral and highly institutionalised frameworks is important, South Africa  could pursue cooperation with selected countries on mining-related skills development, R&D, and consulting engineering aimed at creating a more balanced distribution of benefits.

“In the words of one Zambian high-level government official: ‘regional cooperation can by driven by shared interests or by shared problems’,” continues the report.

In terms of cooperation driven by shared interests, there is a great potential for South Africa and Zambia to cooperate because of the long, shared history of the mining sector.

The researchers also found that there is significant movement of engineering skills across the region.

“Many Zambian engineers are employed in the region, even more Zimbabwean engineers, and South African and Zimbabwean skills are employed in Zambia. International companies particularly in the mining sector are driving these trends. Engineering professionals tend to remain in Botswana, only some leave for South Africa,” the report says.

Citing data from the South Africa Chamber of Mines, the report says in 2014, the percentage of foreign workers in the mining sector was 14 percent.

“Looking at the sectoral breakdown, foreign workers represented nine percent of total engineers working in consultancy services. They find it easier to find work in the consultancy sector rather than the mining companies because of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). There is evidence of intra-SADC skill mobility also for technical skills,” reads the report.

Zambia is enjoying specific skills sourced from Zimbabwe including plastering of ceilings (construction), agricultural skills, and heavy equipment operators.

“The status of skills across South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe is skewed. Botswana seems the least affected due to the low demand from mining companies in the country, however there is an oversupply of mining skills. Zambia has a high output of graduates, though the quality of the students is questionable leading academic and research staff to South Africa for greener pastures,” the report says.

The report adds that “Zimbabwe’s academic and research staff underwent an exodus to international countries, mainly South Africa, following the economic downturn. South Africa seems to have benefitted from the movement of skills across borders.”

“Nonetheless, individual countries are failing to churn out students appropriately trained in engineering with the requisite technical skills.”

Recent years, the report says, have witnessed an increased role by private providers of tertiary education and training skills across the region.

“These institutions are driven more by short-term profit motives and tend to offer courses of study for skills that are not necessarily in short supply. Partly as a result, Botswana in 2015 had a surplus of IT graduates and diplomas, estimated at around 10,000. This situation arose from a confluence of factors, including the practice of accepting government-to-government ICT-specific training offers, for example to Malaysia,” the report says.

“It is also a result of a lack of planning. In Zambia, an increasing number of students have studied at private institutions for business-related courses, with diminishing interest in engineering and technical subjects.

“The underlying reasons for this trend are multifaceted and include the growing importance of service sectors and poor human capital planning capabilities from governments in the region. Poor human capital planning has been highlighted in both Botswana and Zimbabwe. In Botswana, the newly established Human Resource Development Council has been mandated with planning the skills requirement to support Botswana innovation goals,” reads the report.

In Zimbabwe, the National Manpower Advisory Council of Zimbabwe (NAMACO 2012) has a similar mandate. According to the Zimbabwe Institution of Engineers (ZIE), there has not been an updated assessment of skill requirements for the mining industry since the IS152 paper of 1990 and a United Nations’ study in 1996.

The report emphasised that gaps in technical skills are pervasive across the three countries and affect the mining and manufacturing sectors. Some challenges are related to the technical and vocational education training (TVET) system set up by the state.

“For example, the implementation of a coherent TVET qualifications framework in Botswana has been impeded by lack of clarity between the roles of different agencies that have responsibility for TVET qualifications (UNESCO 2013). Trade tests and craft qualifications are the responsibility of the Labour and Education Departments.”

The report says The TVET agency (previously known as the Botswana Training Authority, BOTA) focuses on developing new unit standards-based occupational qualifications, accrediting their delivery, and qualifications offered by private and employer-based providers.

The government of Botswana has recently addressed this gap by converting BOTA into the Botswana Qualifications Authority.

In other cases, the report states, the role of the private sector has been critical. It says in Zimbabwe, this has proved so with a positive outcome. Despite the seeming unravelling of the Zimbabwe NSI, its technical and vocational training institutions in Harare, Bulawayo, and Gweru are still producing high calibre mining and metallurgy skills. The TVET segment of Zimbabwe’s NSI seems to have been more resilient to economic decline than the engineering segment.