On the Spot – ‘Next Five to Ten Years Will Be Critical … ‘ [interview]

New Era senior journalist Albertina Nakale interviewed Sophie Tekie, former president of the Engineering Professions Association of Namibia on the dire shortage of professional engineers in the country. Tekie is also the author of the first report of its kind titled, “Study on the role of the Engineering Profession in Namibia.”

Why do we have a severe shortage of engineers in Namibia?

“The intake at universities and polytechnics is not sufficient to produce the required number of engineers. Mathematics and science subjects are not taught well in schools, and hence bridging courses are carried out by the University of Namibia (Unam) and Polytechnic of Namibia, but it is still not sufficient for the market. The growth rate needed to fulfil Vision 2030 and the national development goals is 11 percent but currently the growth is 7 percent, hence there is a gap.”

How many qualified engineers do we currently have? ST: “According to a report conducted last year October there are 1 271 engineers, in both the categories of registered and in training.”

How does the engineering profession deficit impact on the implementation of NDP4 action plans for infrastructure design, planning, maintenance and supervision?

“These goals might not be fulfilled if we do not focus on the production and training of our own young engineers. The next 5 to10 years will be critical to train and mentor the next generation of engineering professionals before the current 50+ age group of engineers retire. Of the 660 professional engineers practising in Namibia, a total number of 267, roughly 40 percent, are already older than 50 years. The number of engineers in training, mostly young, is 611. This shows virtually the mid-level management is totally missing, and there is a huge gap between the 50+ and the young engineers below 35. And bringing professionals from outside the country has its limitations especially in civil engineering, because it is highly localised [regarding] the standard of practice and local soil conditions. Electronics is easier, as a cellphone or an iPad in Namibia works exactly the same as in another country, as long as the bandwidth and infrastructure are similar. Hence all engineers coming to Namibia need to be selected carefully.”

Why do we have such a low women representation among professional engineers, which is said to be less than 5 present?

“This is because mathematics and science subjects are a taboo in our society and in Africa for women. The education process starts at home, then in our schools to promote the education of girls in science and maths subjects. We need a mind shift when it comes to the girl being equal to boys, and the woman equal to a man as long as they both receive equal opportunity.

“The number of professional women is insignificant. There are women in the Engineering Society at the Polytechnic of Namibia and under the new Science, Technology Commission there is an association of women in science, engineering and technology that is being formed, which originated from SADC (Southern African Development Community). This matter was also discussed at SADC level, to put emphasis on education, and hence the importance of the representation of the Ministry of Education in the study and the forum.”

Do we have deliberate policies in place to make engineering, science and technology education more accessible to rural and poor communities? ST: “There are policies in place and organisations but there is no synergy and the implementation on the ground has many challenges, and hence the call from the engineering fraternity. The whole thing is fragmented. Hence the forum was first of all to know who is doing what, and the second thing was to see how these can be better coordinated. Government cannot do this alone, they need the engineering bodies, the private sector, the parastatals. And this forum and study have made this first attempt to create a dialogue between these different sectors.”

What do you think are the main causes which lead to few students registering for the engineering profession in the country?

“One is the capacity of our tertiary institutions to absorb more and the entry level not being met by our Grade 12 student.”

How is this profession linked to the realisation of Vision 2030 and the national development plans (NDPs)?

“Everything we do is engineering, from our cellphones, to buildings, to roads we use, to the aircraft we build. Hence it has direct linkage with NDP4 and Vision 2030. Vision 2030 says that Namibia will be industrial country. To be industrial engineering is the core. Given that almost N$10 billion was to be spent on infrastructure development in the 201314 financial year, the view is that the engineering industry is entering into a long-term growth phase. The challenge is to ensure that there is sufficient capacity to cope with the increasing workload, since achieving these optimistic predictions will not be possible without the input of engineering professionals in the industry. Research and development need to be encouraged and streamlined, with a database of Namibian research in engineering. Knowledge is lost when people retire. Basically the engineers are looking for appreciation of their profession and to be considered as partners for the development of Namibia. We focus on other professions, but engineering is a core for the development of any country. Look at China and Singapore – the 5 tiger countries, where they were 30 years ago, and they became developed because they focused on education and engineering. That is a fact, and hence we need to learn from them. Give due recognition to engineers, appreciate their professional input to projects before decisions are made, not after. Because that will save taxpayers millions. And yet ethical issues were also discussed, that the new roads we build, the new structures we build and maintain are they to last? Quality is suffering not only in Namibia but also in the whole world. Values of people have changed, and engineering is about having ethics in the work we do, to the highest quality, and that we should not compromise.”

Can cost and study duration be a leading factor in the shortages in the engineering profession?

“The cost depends on universities. The recommendation given is that bursaries should be given to students who will perform, and the ministry of education has brought back the higher (aanced) mathematics and science subjects to the curriculum which is very good. But teachers are not sufficient and they need to be trained, and also to bring back some of the retired teachers to fill the gap. The first graduates from the University of Namibia to teach the higher level subjects will only come out next year, and hence the implementation is slow especially in rural schools. The impact will be felt once they graduate.”

Source : New Era