Sean Blake argues for a highly skilled workforce as the only way to sustain the manufacturing and fabrication industries.

Sean BlakeIt is rather concerning that the future of the fabrication industry remains so unclear. Our industry is in survival mode, with fabrication facilities downscaling as Medupi and Kusile near completion. From next year, it is expected that Medupi will reduce down to 300 workers onsite, with Kusile following shortly after.

We hoped that the two rail projects, the PRASA Fleet Renewal Pro-gramme and the Transnet Freight 1064 project would fill the void left by the completion of the power generation projects. Unfortunately these projects are now also mired in controversy and difficulties. In spite of a lot of training e ort by the OEMs, most notably, Bombadier, the output to date has been very slow. Also of concern is that our private railway industry has not fully benefitted from these projects and, to a certain extent, has been kept at arms length from much of this work. Of late there has been much negative media coverage about the slow progress. With excess capacity in industry, this is rather disappointing.

So where are we headed? Are we watching history repeat itself, seeing a fabrication industry falling apart once again?

Looking at the positives, many people have been trained and capacity building has happened, with some success. In our industry, we now have a lot more welding engineers and technologists, QC personnel and welding inspectors. As an industry we have also trained many more welders, although skills at this level remain problematic.

Our petrochemical industry, mostly through Sasol, has an obvious future because it manufactures fuel from local coal and gas. The oil price is also increasing, which is a positive for fabrication. While problematic for consumers, a higher oil price justifies more exploration, upgrades and new plant investment, which are all good for the welding industry.

Long term, our economy needs a manufacturing-based economy in order to provide employment opportunities, particularly for our society, which has a large proportion of unemployed youth. So it is deeply concerning that, in spite of more positive sentiment, manufacturing declined by 6.4% in the first quarter of this year.

Highly skilled personnel are at the heart of a successful manufacturing industry. We are, therefore, excited and continue to support the DHET’s Centres of Specialisation project, with its focus on the 13 priority trades, welding being one of them. We believe this will help to support the South African economy.

We also need to face some hard facts. The biggest downside of our economy is poor productivity, which is nowhere near world-class levels. We desperately need a better-motivated and more cooperative workforce in order to change this.

A highly skilled workforce is the only way to sustain the manufacturing and fabrication industries. It is imperative that we focus on putting well trained and highly skilled people into good quality jobs so they can produce quality products that are globally competitive. The welding industry can provide those jobs, but we need infrastructure development and projects to stimulate the demand for these skills.

This is at the heart of transformation. Nelson Mandela said: ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.’ This needs to be a mantra in our society. We need to raise our e orts in education and training so that we can get more competent people into high-level positions.

Welding is an enabling technology that can produce a better quality of life, because it involves decent paying jobs and lifelong careers. And welding skills are needed everywhere in the world. The AWS predicts a welder shortage of 400 000 in the US by 2024.

So welding can be a core part of addressing transformation issues, restoring our manufacturing base and delivering a better life for all.

Sean Blake

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Crown Publications, one of South Africa’s largest business-to-business publishing houses, came into existence in 1986. Since then, the company has grown from producing a single magazine, Electricity SA (renamed Electricity+Control), to publishing six monthly magazines, three quarterlies, and a number of engineering handbooks.