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Friday May 04, 2012

Retired staff to fill eThekwini skills gap

Retired engineers, electricians and technicians are being lured to the eThekwini Municipality in a desperate bid to address a critical lack of skilled personnel.

With up to three-quarters of the positions vacant in its electricity department, the municipality has been forking out huge sums of money in overtime pay as it grapples with the challenge of finding new recruits.

A document tabled at a meeting yesterday of its governance and human resources committee revealed massive shortages of key staff, including a 38 percent vacancy rate for engineers, 44 percent for technicians and 32 percent for electricians.

In some areas the vacancy rate was as high as 75 percent, said electricity department head Sandile Maphumulo.

He said there was only one high-voltage project supervisor out of four posts. These skills could not be acquired in the open market as the incumbent needed to be authorised to switch on the electricity unit's high-voltage networks.

"In the high-voltage control room, which is a 24-hour operation, only four out of the 10 control officer posts are filled", the report stated.

As a short-term fix, the department has requested a budget of R18 million to pay retired engineers who will be brought back to work for the municipality on 12-month contracts over a period of five years.

The retired engineers will team up with novices, who will learn the ropes from these experts.

"The recruitment of retired, highly competent and experienced scarce skills personnel on short-term contracts will greatly assist the electricity unit in the mentoring, training and developing new recruits," Maphumulo said.

He said the scarcity of employees with network "switching skills" was evident in the high overtime earners the city had on its database.

Out of the 24 posts of switching officers, only 15 were filled, including two who were "pre-competent".

"This implies that only 13 switching officers are available on a 24-hour basis to perform switching on a huge electrical network to isolate faulty sections, to undertake preparation switching before work can be conducted and to undertake return-to-service switching," he said in the report.

Maphumulo said management had no option but to pay existing staff overtime.

"Retired competent engineering personnel from Eskom and municipalities with highvoltage networks can be assessed, retrained if necessary and deemed suitable to work on the electricity unit's networks within a very short period."

Committee member Heinz de Boer (DA) welcomed the initiative, but asked why it had taken the municipality so long to address the problem. "The skills shortage was highlighted several years ago," he said. "If we started this four years ago, we could have a new crop of engineers who'd be teaching the younger engineers."

Various factors, including staff moving out of the province and the country in search of better salaries and working conditions, were blamed for the shortages.

The department, said Maphumulo, had made concerted efforts to address the deficiency by engaging in extensive recruitment initiatives, including national advertising, investing in training and using incentives to lure engineers.

He said the fruits of those endeavours would fully manifest only in three to five years.

"Even though the electricity unit has made great strides in filling vacancies, there is a large number of new engineering staff who are young and inexperienced," Maphumulo said in the report.

Daily Mail

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