Exodus at Eskom

Trade union Solidarity on Tuesday told the National Energy Regulator of South Africa’s (Nersa’s) public hearings into power utility Eskom’s proposed tariff hike that at least 346 engineers and artisans left Eskom last year.

Eskom has asked Nersa to allow it to increase its tariffs by 53% this year, and the public hearings, which form part of the application process, kicked off late last week.

The regulator expected to make its decision on Eskom’s application by June 6.

Solidarity asked Nersa to grant Eskom a temporary increase only, pending a thorough investigation into, among other things, Eskom’s skills needs and the current skills supply.

The skills exodus happened at a time when Eskom needed thousands of new engineers and artisans for its planned expansions, the trade union said.

In its presentation, Solidarity showed that the South African education system would not be able to produce the skills necessary for the utility’s expansion.

It said universities currently produce about 1 290 engineers a year, while the economy needs twice that number to supply the demand for skills.

India has one engineer for every 157 inhabitants, China has one for every 130 citizens, Germany has one for every 217 citizens and Brazil has one for every 227 inhabitants, while South Africa has only one engineer for every 3 166 citizens.

"At present South Africa only has about 10% of the number of artisans that it had 20 years ago and the country has a 40% shortage of artisans," Solidarity said.

The trade union said it believed the problem lay at the school level, with most students turning out poor science and mathematics results.

In 2007, only 4.5% of students passed mathematics at higher grade and only 4.98% passed science at higher grade.

Nersa’s public hearings have thus far largely concentrated on energy resources and their effect on price.

In the meantime, the "single issue that can bring Eskom’s operations – as well as the expansions – to a grinding halt is not energy resources, but human resources", Solidarity said.

The availability and price of skills have not yet been taken into account in the price debate, said Solidarity deputy general secretary Dirk Hermann.

Solidarity has also criticised Eskom’s plans to recruit skills from abroad.

"There are enormous skills shortages all over the world," the trade union pointed out.

It said Russia had to recruit 20m immigrants to resolve its skills shortage, Australia cannot meet the increased demand for mineral resources due to a lack of skills and China currently has 75 000 vacancies for engineers with only 6 000 qualified Chinese engineers available.

"Eskom will find that recruiting foreigners is not that simple," Solidarity said, adding that Eskom had around 1 500 of 3 200 key positions vacant.

A recent study by Solidarity found that more than 72% of Solidarity members in Eskom – mainly people with critical technical skills – want to leave the company, and 99% of respondents said Eskom did not do enough to retain skills.

Proposing an eight-point plan, Solidarity suggested that a skills audit be commissioned at the utility.

It said Eskom could consider paying a decent skills allowance, bringing retired skills back and giving expatriate South Africans an incentive to return.

The trade union said training should also be more aggressive, with affirmative action spending being ploughed into school development including comprehensive science and mathematics programmes at disadvantaged schools.


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Exodus at Eskom