‘A government study across a number of countries showed that, when it came to paying skilled workers, South African wages were at the bottom, but, when it came to paying managers, they were at the top’ Alec Erwin: Address to the Metal and Engineering Union Bargaining Council.

There was good news and bad news from the Minister of Public enterprises.
The good news was that the government was planning to spend R320 billion in the next five years on the Public Sector infrastructure development plan.
The bad news was that as much as 40% of this might have to be spent outside South Africa because of the decline in capabilities of the private sector as a result of deterioration of skills and expertise.

He pointed to the metal casting industries in particular as an instance where there had been deterioration to the point of extinction. This is particularly relevant in the light of the paper in this issue from Mintek on the breakthrough on magnesium metal production, which places the country on a springboard to exploit our extensive magnesite deposits in the form of added value products such as lightweight castings for a host of applications in consumer goods.

He berated the management of private industry in their lack of vision in not promoting those skills necessary for the evolution of modern technology in a developing economy. He referred to the need to concentrate on the development of those specific skills that are essential to the country rather than the broad-based tertiary education of the past decades. Such skills must be competitive with those in the global technologies with which we interact.

He indicated that the government was working on a plan to resuscitate proper tertiary education by putting more money into research and promoting better interaction between private industry and tertiary education. He suggested that Escom should be held up as an example of an enlightened management team representative of the society in South Africa in the development of management and technical skills.

We learn from the media that there is a desperate shortage of engineers and Escom, in particular, are sending recruitment teams around the world to locate the many hundreds of electrical engineers to commission the mothballed power stations and to provide the power for the homes of the ‘havenot’s’ and for the cluster industries that we hope will provide the much needed jobs.

When we talk of engineers, we have to appreciate that we mean a whole family from the artisan to the design consultant; and the interaction is as important as the individual skills. But do we create jobs by bringing in skills from outside?

Can we solve the tertiary education by throwing money at research when we are pitifully short of researchers and exist in a management culture which is foreign to creative technology? What is the policy of the professional engineers’ councils to the hoard of foreign qualifications taking on the professional work, reserved for our brand of qualifications? There is a shortage of engineers globally, so I am pretty sure that the salaries that will have to be paid to the expatriates will make the stalwarts holding the fort green with envy and determined to show that this invasion is unworkable. The apprenticeship system has apparently collapsed and our Institute, in an attempt to establish some form of guided learnership, is appealing to members to volunteer as mentors to assist learners to serve the mining and minerals sector.

These are all patch-up remedies and there is little sense in one arm of the body blaming the other for the crisis that has now appeared. Surprise, surprise! One must remember that the act of visionary management applies as much to the public sector as to private industry. There is little sign of either arm recognizing the fundamentals of the mess we are in and doing something to remedy the fundamental problem. There is little point in recriminations when attempting to maintain a mansion with foundations in a marshland. The fundamental problem is that we are still abysmally unable to attract good science and maths teachers into the majority of our schools.

With the opportunities that are offered in industry, what incentive is there for a young tertiary qualified engineer or scientist to take up teaching. Certainly there is no incentive in salaries or working conditions. The OBE curriculum is now creeping into the matric levels of schooling. While it might be wonderful in teaching creative thinking and problem solving by psychological principles, this has little value until the disciplined act of logical mathematical acquisition of the fundamental laws of basic science have been instilled. And shown to have been absorbed by the act of an examination. Without this foundation, creative thinking can merely lead to the inability to distinguish fact from fiction. To achieve the disciplined approach and at the same time to inspire young people towards the excitement and fulfilment in a technical career, requires good teachers. These are the fundamental factors and our nation falls, flounders or flies on our ability to provide them...

Undoubtedly the Department of Education recognizes the need for science and maths teachers at schools and they are making some progress to provide them. However, the pace is too slow because there are so many other demands for funds, AIDs, poverty release, crime and infrastructure, and it is difficult to persuade the political powers that science teachers have a place near the top of the list. The obvious act is to double the salaries of science teachers, the impact of which will be profound, but this is seemingly unthinkable. I have previously suggested the introduction of the ‘Education Bond’ as a Government capital fund for prestigious bursaries and loans to promising students.

These will carry an inescapable commitment to teach at school level when training has been completed. There have been many suggestions for collaboration between industry and schools to provide laboratories, all of which are valuable, but it is the teacher gap that is vital. I do not think that lack of funds is the main log jam. More important is the lack of a scientific and technical culture among the politicians and top level CEOs. ‘You can always buy technology and technologists’ is a far too common attitude, and Minister Erwin’s remarks are an indication that he is coming to a deeper appreciation of the complex problem. On our part as members of the scientific and engineering fraternity, we must step up the crusade to highlight the fundamental reasons for the technical crisis in the country. After all, we have high-powered media focus on gender equality, gay marriages, human rights and endangered species. Maybe in the light of the latter, we can mount a media focus on science and mathematics teachers, with the latest glamorous ‘Idol’ bellowing forth with African drum accompaniment, ‘The Boom Time Blues’.  R.E. Robinson  Jan 2006