Africa needs more skilled engineers, says research

“Sufficient engineering capacity is essential to the economic and social development of any country. It is a basic requirement for the provision of infrastructure that enables better healthcare, access to education and the development of an attractive environment for foreign investment. It is a key driver for innovation and growth.”

Construction by South African-based engineering and construction group, Stefanutti Stocks Holdings Ltd.

A building project by South African-based engineering and construction group, Stefanutti Stocks Holdings Ltd.

This is according to a recent study that looks at the engineering capacity needs in sub-Saharan Africa, conducted by the Royal Academy of Engineering and headed by Holly Wright, the Academy’s international policy advisor for Africa. The results of the survey revealed that Africa lacks engineers with sufficient skills and experience.

The report also highlighted that there are notable levels of unemployment among engineering graduates. One of the reasons for this could be partly due to a reluctance by engineering graduates to take poorly paid positions in rural areas. “However, the predominant reason identified in this study was that engineers were graduating without the necessary skills and experience to be employable,” stated Wright.

According to the research, although this problem of a lack of skilled engineers may vary between engineering sectors, professional levels and countries, it is a problem prevalent across sub-Saharan Africa.

Why does sub-Saharan Africa lack skilled engineers?

One of the causes identified for this low capacity in sub-Saharan Africa is due to government policies and approaches to engineering. “Low-level public investment in engineering projects over several decades has meant an inconsistent demand for engineers, which has seriously limited the opportunities for engineers to gain marketable skills and experience,” added Wright.

The report also suggests that governments in the region often fail to uphold engineering standards through requirements for professional registration.

“The failure or lack of regulation in relation to foreign engineering firms is also damaging to local capacity,” explained Wright. “Local content laws, where they do exist, are often not appropriately enforced to ensure knowledge transfer from foreign companies to local engineers.”

Another cause for Africa’s low number of engineers with sufficient skills is due to poor quality education. “Engineering courses in sub-Saharan Africa are often too theoretical, based on outdated curricula and not relevant to local needs,” stated Wright.

In addition, engineering faculties generally lack the resources to provide appropriate laboratory experience and academic staff are often paid low salaries, making it a less attractive position for high quality staff. The research added that it is particularly difficult for universities to compete with the private sector to attract academic staff with industrial experience.

Other factors causing this low capacity include the lack of opportunity to gain work experience as a student and, once in the work place, to receive training. Furthermore, there has been a ‘brain drain’ of quality engineers in sub-Saharan Africa as those that do obtain the skills and experience, often leave to find jobs in countries where pay and working conditions are better.

“Also contributing to low engineering capacity is the weakness of professional engineering institutions in sub-Saharan Africa, which are typically poorly resourced,” added Wright.

What needs to be done?

The research illustrates that low engineering capacity is an obstacle to the development of national and regional infrastructure, which affects the economic development of countries in the region. The impact of this is most obvious in rural areas where it is more difficult to attract skilled engineers and infrastructure is particularly poor or non-existent. Wright notes that poor infrastructure is a deterrent to foreign investment.

“Beyond the direct impact of poor infrastructure, lack of engineering capacity hampers economic growth,” explained Wright. “The limited capacity of local providers, for example, has led to widespread reliance on foreign engineering companies, which can result in capital flight and a reduction in employment opportunities.”

Wright suggests that there is a greater need to understand that the benefits of investing in infrastructure in sub-Saharan Africa go beyond services delivered, and countries that rely on the expertise of foreign investment in their engineering sector must develop strategies to use that investment to build their local capacity and reduce this reliance in the long run.