The shortage of skilled labour in South Africa is so extreme that it is threatening the country’s long-term growth requiring immediate action.

Big business knows and understands the harsh realities all too well. Adcorp South Africa's pre-eminent authority on the job search process calculates that there are currently 829 800 unfilled positions for high-skilled workers across a wide range of occupations, including senior management, the professions (medicine, engineering, accounting and the law), technical occupations (specialized technicians and artisans), and agriculture.

Reshaping the landscape will need positive input not only from government but from private enterprise – but who will start that big ball really rolling

One of South Africa’s largest corporates believes the answer lies in finding innovative and dynamic ways to encourage young learners to focus their energies on scarce skills.

“But that’s just the beginning,” says Presheen Gungaparsad, Process and Innovation Engineering Manager FMCG giant Unilever’s Personal Care division.

“Once they have achieved their goals, you have to try and turn dreams into a reality”.

To this end Unilever has put its weight behind an organisation called SAWomEng, a national networking group that supports and encourages women in the field of engineering.

“For many years this sector was marginalised,” says Gungaparsad. “There were very few women engineers and those that qualified found it difficult to get good top jobs, possibly because it was looked upon as a man’s domain. We want to be involved in changing that scenario – significantly!” Last week as part of that SAWomEng conference (transformation process,) Unilever hosted 60 women from engineering training backgrounds throughout the country to “look, see and learn” about the company’s operation at Indonsa – a state-of-the art savoury processing and packaging plant in Riverhorse Valley, outside Durban.

“You can read and Google all you like but getting up close and personal to the nuts and bolts of how a company works and how it drives the sustainability is, we think, the way to inspire and foster interest,” says Gungaparsad. She also believes that there has to be a “holistic approach” to promoting work skills, particularly amongst women. “I don’t think a whistle-stop tour around our factory would have done it, or a welcome breakfast and lunch. (I actually didn’t say these things! but approve that it is used as such.)

“Interaction, one-to-one discussions and a strong dash of hope are what we have factored into the awareness process. This involved a discussion workshop with leaders in their field, a morning on the factory floor (there was no visit to pack plant in CT), a case study based on a factory start-up and a technical project that addresses a burning issue.”

On this occasion the multi-group project called for “out-of-the-box” grand challenge ideas on how to reduce the carbon footprint of factory waste and innovative ideas to deal with the disposal of metal foil based packaging.

“Although much research has gone into both these factors worldwide, we still don’t have all the answers,” Ashwin Ramsudh, Unilever’s packaging development manager, told his young guests.

“We need you, with new ideas, to help us; things we haven’t thought of. The best prize-winning ideas coming out of these think tanks will then be examined closer for cost and feasibility with the possibility of implementing them on the factory floor.”

Likewise Sharon Purchase, Business Development Manager for waste management company Re-Ethical, said the problems surrounding waste disposal in South Africa were immense.

“It’s estimated that 67 million tonnes of waste are generated every year, but because there are no weighbridges at most landfill sites we still don’t know the exact amount.

“It could be a lot higher. Even more alarming, 45 percent of the population, mainly those in rural areas, do not have access to waste disposal facilities, and of the 13 000 landfill sites in the country, less than 10 percent are permitted

“Although Durban probably has the best system in the country, the challenges to find better solutions are very real and right on our doorstep.”

Cape Town-based chemical engineer, Traci Reddy, conference director of the SAWomEng, believes that South Africa has some of the world’s most “dedicated and passionate” women engineers.

“Networking with companies like Unilever is definitely the way to go. The world would love to snap up our engineers, because skills shortages are everywhere, not only in South Africa. We have to ensure that we keep top women here where they are so desperately needed. That requires the opening up of opportunities and the chance of life-long careers on home soil.”

The candidates for the annual SAWomEng conference – this year hosted and supported by Unilever – are chosen from all learning tertiary institutions, (no high school students for conference) to technikons and university post graduate levels, and focus on challenges and issues facing the country. (High school students are targeted through the “GirlEng” program which Unilever is also a sponsor off)

Yaseen Schrueder, Unilever Human Resource business partner for the Indonsa site, said that it was at this interactive level that new talent and bright decision makers could be identified.

“You can go through all the CVs in the world, but unless you meet people in person, discover their ambitions, hopes and dreams, you will only have half the picture. We believe this is the way to go. It’s about matching the right people with their expectations and nurturing empowerment and free thinking.”

The “look and learn” factory tour for the group of up-and-coming engineers embraced all aspects of the spice, soup and seasoning process, including a number of “green” water and power-saving technologies, new technology in the mixing method, the delivery of raw products and packaging. The factory is designed to produce 65 000 tons of product per year, making it the second largest savoury factory in the Unilever world. 

Roxanne Mans, a fourth-year BSc civil engineering student at UKZN, said that it had been “a very useful” experience. “My interest is in green energy and how waste disposal can be turned into a benefit rather than being a negative factor. I believe that this awareness should start at school with children shown exactly what is happening to their environment.” 

Maureen Ramaube from the Tshwane University of Technology in Pretoria where she is studying for a diploma in mechanical engineering said that energy efficiency was her particular interest. “We cannot continue putting fossil fuels into the air otherwise our planet is doomed. I want to devote my life to having a cleaner place to live for my children.”

From Zimbabwe and studying in South Africa, Natasha Chapingidza (business science UCT) and Chipo Chimhundu (biomedical engineering UCT and SAWomEng conference coordinator) described the Unilever visit as “an opportunity they could never have dreamt of”.

“Now we know what we want to focus on – and that’s being successful and green at the same time.”

Thandiswa Makhiwane, from Pietermaritzburg, a fourth-year BSc mechatronics engineering student from UCT said she was interested to see how her knowledge of engineering and science could be best used.

“Programmes where you can interact with the top people in commerce and industry on a personal basis are certainly a huge advantage.

“It doesn’t matter how well you do academically - you need direction to show you where you can go with your knowledge.”

Unilever provided guidance to candidates for the duration of the technical project. Submissions were assessed by a panel of judges and the winners were announced at a Gala Dinner event at the President Protea Hotel in Cape Town last week.

Unilever also provided a case study to the delegates in the run up to the conference. This case study exposed delegates to the challenges of migrating an operation. The winners of this were also announced at the Gala Dinner. Lauren Stewart from the University of Stellenbosch, first prize winner of the Unilever case study challenge said: “The award is more than just a win for me – it recognises my individual contribution to the field of engineering based on a real life scenario. The experience has been very enriching. 

I now have more focus in terms of my career and interests and I hope to be a role model to aspiring female engineers in the future.” (Please note that the case study and the technical project (foil waste) are 2 separate items. Lauren and Roxanne were the winners of the CASE STUDY. It was a group of 10 people that won the technical project, I don’t have all their names, this was run by SAWomEng team.

Roxanne Mans from the University of KwaZulu Natal who secured second place said: “I am delighted to be part of an initiative that actively promotes women in a field that was once male dominated. I have renewed confidence after receiving the award and I only hope to create waves of success in the industry in the years to come.”

For more information contact:

Unilever South Africa - Unathi Mgobozi External Affairs Manager

+27 31 570 3000
031 570 2470

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