Construction industry has failed the youth

Thandi Ndlovu
2013-09-01 11:16
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Dr Thandi Ndlovu (Supplied) ~ Supplied
Executive chairperson of the Motheo Construction Group and the 2013 winner of the BWA's Businesswoman of the Year award, Dr Thandi Ndlovu, speaks her mind about skills development and the youth. She writes:

EMPOWERMENT is about the development of knowledge, skills and the enablement of people to realise their abilities and full potential.

From this perspective, the construction industry has failed South Africa’s young people.

Low levels of innovation, coupled with the industry’s stifled thinking, has confined young people to boxed, conventional thinking and are the main contributors for the delay in evolvement within the industry.

Twenty years ago, all that black people knew to do was brick laying. Now we have thousands of young black graduate architects, surveyors, geo-technicians, quantity surveyors, designers, land surveyors and town planners.

So, the challenge facing the country is not that of inclusion of black professionals within the construction industry.

The problem is that industry practitioners have not created enough space for young people to be fully integrated to grow within the industry.

They are not enabled to apply the knowledge that they have acquired from academic institutions and devise innovative solutions to address the socioeconomic challenges the country faces.

Instead of taking advantage of the new skills set, of the innovative thinking capabilities of young people, industry practitioners have continued regurgitating old methods of doing things and have neglected embracing new innovative ideas.

Yet we have a pool of vibrant, intelligent young people with knowledge, and exciting ideas on how we can transform communities through construction, provide cost effective ways of providing sanitation and address dire shortages of water for people in deep rural areas of the country.

The industry continues to conform to conventional methods, exporting houses in urban areas to rural areas and not identifying alternative solutions of addressing issues on housing in rural areas and establishing what’s best for the country.

We keep exporting conventional city buildings to rural areas as if that’s the only way of addressing the issue on housing.

We need to identify what can be done from a housing point of view to address current challenges on housing, how we can improve rural homesteads and allow young people the opportunity to innovate, to explore and implement the knowledge they have acquired from universities and help create a generation of innovators, who will ensure the sustainability of our sector.

According to the Engineering Council of South Africa’s database, currently, there has been an increase in the number of black young engineers entering the market, with one engineer for every 3 100 people in country.

Although we are still lagging behind compared to countries like Germany, great strides have been made in creating a new pool of engineers to service the industry.

The problem we have is not a skills or empowerment issue, it’s an innovation challenge.

We as practitioners have failed the young people of our country by underutilising the resources and the young graduates that we have.

We need to take these young graduates and start using their knowledge to identify areas in which we can build more cost effectively, and maximise on their new and fresh approach to establish how we can deliver services, water and sanitation in deep rural areas of our country.

If we are going to change the future of the construction industry landscape, we need to start nurturing the talent that the industry has now and position it as attractive for young people.

This will enable them to bring in their expertise and flourish in projects that will position the industry more appropriately for the future, so that they are able to inform changes in the industry’s strategic approach.

Beyond BEE quotas

Because everything has become about empowerment and transformation, ticking boxes and meeting the BB-EEE quotas, we have neglected the contributions and importance of innovation.

Yet even this empowerment should be done, not because of legislative requirements, but because of the need to sustain economies through diversified workplaces.

Long before black economic empowerment even became fashionable, we set up a company whose values were based on empowering people from within communities.

We identified talent within black communities and groomed talented women, young people and men from communities to contribute towards building Motheo Construction, a company that has today become one of the most successful black empowered companies in the county.

We didn’t do it because we were expected to do it or because we were legislated to do it.

We did it because we believed in the principles of empowerment, the skills these people brought on board, their capacity and potential and that if you give a person an opportunity, they will realise their potential and make a success of whatever they do.

And if we could take that approach today of identifying talent and utilising innovative thinkers, great strides will be made in addressing our construction industry's traditionally low levels of innovation.

As with all the big issues in the world, the solutions are simple: we need to communicate effectively between government and the private sector, and ensure that we agree on a systematic approach that will help enable young people’s contributions towards the industry.

We need to be more serious about building on artisanships, to allow young people to explore their capabilities.

The issue of artisanships is a big one. We only have 7 000 registered artisans and yet the targets for year 2012-2013 was 31 000.

Issues around capacity constraints at workplaces to accommodate trainee artisans have been noted as one of the major challenges, but the problem goes beyond that.

Government has created unrealistic expectations on remuneration and so, in as much as companies may be willing to accommodate young artisans, it remains difficult given the high cost implication and low profit margins.

We need to have serious conversations about overcoming these issues as they are stifling our abilities as practitioners to bring on board more women and young people as part of the economy.

These conversations will go a long way towards enabling us to build a more sustainable and innovative industry for generations to come.

 - Fin24

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