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Shortage of welding skills in South Africa discussed

Dec 7, 2017
Shortage of welding skills in South Africa discussed

According to Sean Blake, executive director of the South African Institute for Welding (SAIW), South Africa continues to import foreign welding skills because of the inability to meet local demand.

Blake says recent discussions with Eskom confirms that more than 70% of welders, who are currently working on the Medupi and Kusile power stations are from foreign countries.

“Based on our experience over the years and the feedback we receive from industry, we do believe that South Africa currently lacks sufficient artisan skills to support growth and even more so when it comes to welding skills, which forms a critical part of most manufacturing processes,” he says.

The importing of welding skills remains an industry hot potato. The issue surfaced five years ago when the SAIW red-flagged a lack of welding skills not only on Eskom’s power generation projects, but also on major construction and infrastructure developments such as Transnet’s pipelines and Sasol’s petrochemical plants. 

The 2012 SAIW study, led by former executive director, Jim Guild, reported welding skills imports of 30 to 40% on operating power stations, and up to 80% on new power generations projects.

Public statements by Eskom’s then-chief operating officer Dan Morokane confirmed these numbers. He stated that in order for Eskom to meet its construction deadlines, it had to employ 75% of welders from outside South Africa.

A study by René van Wyk from the Department of Industrial Psychology and People Management at the University of Johannesburg, highlighted that other construction and manufacturing industries were experiencing similar challenges.

As stated in her case study, “large firms such as Grinaker-LTA and Sasol import welders from Malaysia, Ireland, India and Thailand to perform construction and maintenance work.” The problem forms part of the overall shortage of artisans in the country.

To respond to the shortage, South African training institutes have provided significant focus to the development of local welding expertise, and welding schools have mushroomed across the country.

Sean Jones, managing director of the Artisan Training Institute (ATI) says although a skills injection into the South African welding trade is critical, training academies need to maintain the quality of training outcomes to meet demand. 

He says ATI has been actively focussing on addressing learners’ attitudes and welding competence to ensure that they perform on par with foreign labour. “Enhancing the competitiveness of our local welders require a mind shift from management, unions and artisans that embrace the common goal of growing the employability of local welders. We need to collectively match the quality of welding skills supply with that of industry’s demand, he concludes.

Industry responds with conscientious effort to grow local welders

The flipside of South Africa’s welding skills shortage, is the opportunities it presents.

According to Sean Jones, managing director of the Artisan Training Institute (ATI), the shortage of welders in South Africa has opened a window of opportunity for local job creation.

The South African Institute of Welders (SAIW) agrees that the welding industry poses great employment prospects for people from all levels of education, ranging from grade 12’s to post-graduates. This is because of the complex nature of South Africa’s construction and manufacturing projects, which requires equally complex welding processes.

A 2012 study by the SAIW points to the general misconception of welding skills only being required at a “lower” level.

Multiple processes are used to make welds, such as TIG root welding and manual metal arc (MMA) welding. Additionally, a wide range of materials are welded in the manufacturing space, including special high temperature grades of steel, which require ultra-careful control of the welding process.

South Africa’s manufacturing plants generally fall in “high hazard” categories which imply that failure of these plants will not only have significant financial consequences, but also poses safety risks.

These are some of the reasons why South Africa needs to grow its local pool of lower level and high-end welding skills – from skilled welders, supervisors, inspectors and non-destructive testing technicians, to welding technologists and welding engineers.

According to Sean Blake executive director of the SAIW the training industry has made inroads to grow local welders over the past five years. “We currently have 154 companies that are certified as compliant with the ISO 3834 welding regulations as part of the Manufacturer Certification Scheme.”

Blake explains that this scheme has a positive impact on recognising the need for trained, qualified and competent personnel in the field of welding.

“The QCTO has furthermore developed a new welder curriculum that is well aligned with the IIW International Welder Programme and which we believe is much better suited to the training skills required by industry,” says Blake. 

The DHET has contracted SAIW to assist with the implementation of this artisan curriculum in TVET colleges.

“This is a major step in the right direction, but we do believe that much more dedicated and coordinated efforts by industry, training institutions and government will be required to ensure that our country produces sufficient artisans and welders to enable future growth,” Blake concludes.