A continent as vast as Africa has untold potential and ample resources to fuel massive industrialization, but numerous signs point to a potential bottleneck for development: engineering demand.
As major projects are unfolding from South Africa to the Sinai, corporations and governments alike are seeking the labor of qualified engineering graduates and professionals who understand the nature of these projects and their local communities. While the results are varied from country to country, the aggregate situation leaves much to be desired.
Nevertheless, the transformations to infrastructure and the economy seen thus far are fueled by Africa’s engineering bandwidth.
Engineering Success Stories
Numerous projects over the past decade – both large and small – highlight the potential for widespread engineering success throughout Africa.
The UN Development Program began spearheading an international solar power program in 2009 that brought vital electricity to more than a dozen villages. Focused on Burkina Faso, Benin, and Mali, this solution sought to address a critical issue: without dangerous kerosene lamps, economic activity ground to a halt at sunset.
Since its development, more than 30 percent of homes under the jurisdiction of this engineering project are now powered by solar.
Another oft-noted project that would not have been possible without the assistance of engineers is the “Great Green Wall”. Originally conceived as a 10-mile thick, 4,000-mile long line of trees stretching from Senegal to Djibouti, the plan in its totality is far from complete.
However, through careful engineering and agricultural planning, the western segments of the project have since developed into a vital buffer that is slowly expanding throughout Burkina Faso and Niger. In the process, scientists and engineers note that this land – previously devoid of life – has since improved land management, food production, and fuel for over 3 million people in the region.
Arguably, there is no greater struggle in engineering capacity and bandwidth than in Sub-Saharan Africa. The biggest threat to long-term infrastructure and development is rooted in the lack of engineering graduates and hires in the region, but what factors are actually driving this dynamic?
According to a Royal Academy of Engineering study conducted in 2013, the factors are more nuanced than they might seem.
The study found that the region was producing fewer than half the number of engineering graduates needed in a given year to sustain long-term engineering progress. This alone would be a major challenge for any nation, business, or region to overcome, but additional challenges face the region as well.
Also noted in the study was the fact that unemployment rates among engineering graduates remain unreasonably high. Findings ultimately pointed to two main contributing factors: a lack of engineering graduates willing to accept lower-paid engineering roles in more remote Sub-Saharan locations, and elevated numbers of engineering graduates not possessing the skills and experience to be hired upon graduation (according to the study’s author).
Other long-term issues believed to fuel the perpetual lack of engineering bandwidth throughout most of Sub-Saharan Africa include fluctuating levels of demand for engineers that force engineers to seek employment elsewhere, and local governmental laws that fail to encourage international engineering standards are applied in the long term.
South Africa: a Case Study
South Africa is a common example of a prosperous economy with many modern projects and engineering feats constantly in development. However, the full picture – even in a highly-developed nation – is far more nuanced.
Engineers from every continent flock to South Africa for its high salaries and ease of employment (the level of demand for engineers is just as substantial as throughout the rest of Africa). Entry-level engineers often earn $50,000 USD per year, with experienced engineers capable of earning salaries greater than $120,000 USD.
Yet South Africa has one of the same problems as the rest of Africa: a shortage of engineers. While it might appear to be due to intense demand outpacing the supply of engineers, the South African Institution Of Civil Engineering (SAICE) reports that of the group’s 10,000-plus members, hundreds have left the country since 2016 alone.
Private sector engineering opportunities continue to grow, but public sector engineering in South Africa continues to face struggles. According to SAICE, the most commonly reported complaints among engineers with regard to working in public sector positions include a lack of career advancement opportunities, inefficient administration, excessive intervention from non-engineering departments with day-to-day responsibilities, and a politicized environment in general.
Ultimately, the mixed successes of South Africa show that even prosperous nations are struggling to deal with issues related to engineering demand.
Alternative Education Routes
Ultimately, a meaningful share of engineering demand not being met through Africa simply boils down to a lack of engineering graduates. However, and as mentioned by the Royal Academy of Engineering study, there is also a need for additional skills, experience, and education to ensure all graduates are employable in general.
Most notably, higher education institutions are increasingly embracing the dynamic of allowing students to study from home or remotely. With the ability to enroll in online engineering courses, students can ultimately overcome potential challenges that may limit attendance at physical universities and campuses.
Another major benefit to engineering graduates seeking to further their viability in employment is to combine engineering with another degree. As one example, engineers pursuing Master of Business Administration programs from accredited universities can complement their existing education and skills; many successful individuals in leadership positions around the world have backgrounds in both engineering and business – click here to learn more about this degree pairing and its benefits.
Additionally, an increasing number of African engineering graduates chose to study abroad in order to bolster their own credentials and appeal in the job market. While it can be more difficult to recruit these individuals back to their countries of origin post-graduation, some cities and governments have forged arrangements with students to help cover the cost of tuition in exchange for a commitment to return and work at home for a set period of time.
Ultimately, alternative forms of engineering education must be considered if the full demand for engineers throughout Africa is to be reached.
Plenty of progress has and continues to be made, but obvious hurdles remain with regard to engineering. Nevertheless, the future looks bright for African engineering as more students embark upon career paths in this lucrative and vital field of study.