Skills development – a necessary but costly business

June 26th, 2015, Published in Articles: EngineerIT

I recently had the opportunity to have a conversation with Rob MacKenzie, MD of Endress+Hauser. The company opened its doors in South Africa in 1984, having been represented by agents prior to that. The agents had focused mainly on process measurement and management in the mining industry. Markets have now expanded with major developments in the petro-chemical, food processing and water and power industries. In addition, Africa is now open for business. But some things have not changed, namely technology advances and the requirement for skills development, and that will always be a costly business.

Rob MacKenzie, md Endress+Hauser

Rob MacKenzie, MD, Endress+Hauser

Once the mainstay of South Africa’s economy, MacKenzie said that the mining industry is now under pressure. “I see no major new mining projects in South Africa on the horizon.  As commodity prices are stagnant and in some instances going down, the need to extract more product from the mined material has become a major focus area. The industry is constantly looking for new ways of improving their extraction processes to increase the yield. This is having a positive impact on the process measurement industry as it  includes requirements for better flow measurement, better analytical measurement and better asset management. The mining industry is also starting to look at metal accounting – how much metal is in the raw product going into the process, and how much metal comes out.”

Turning to the statement that Africa is open for business, he said that there are exciting challenges and growth markets in Africa in industries  other than mining. “The question around the supply of food and beverages, the supply of clean water, the processing of “dirty” water and the supply of power are going to be the key drivers of the process measurement industry in the near future.

“There are certainly challenges when doing business in Africa. People talk about Africa, but Africa is not a place. Africa is a mixture of a whole lot of countries which are all very different. If we talk about the DRC, the greatest challenge is access, getting into the country, free movement within the country and, still to some degree, security. If you look at Namibia it is a very different picture. It is the complete opposite, and then there is everything else inbetween.  From an industry perspective, each country has its own challenges and needs. Industries are different and not, as some people may believe, an extension of South Africa. Every country has its own market challenges. One advantage we have in South Africa is that we have good access by air. It is however important for companies like ourselves to understand these challenges. South Africa needs to tap into the fast growing markets on the rest of our continent.

“One of the important factors of doing business in Africa is to have the right partner who understands the culture and the business environment. It can be challenging, but with careful selection, the right contract and mutual understanding of the business, it usually works out well”, he said.

Being in a highly technical environment our conversation turned to the subject of technical skills.  How does the industry maintain a high level of skilled people and what training is required?  “Training is a big issue for us and I am sure for other players in the industry. We have to send our people overseas to obtain the required levels of skill, not only to ensure that we give the industry the best advice and work with customers on their maintenance and process sustainability issues, but also to impart their skills and train local people. It is at this level that we have an issue with the Department of Trade and Industry.  Through their new broad-based black economic empowerment policies, they do not recognise our overseas training because it is not recognised by the South Africa authorities. 85% of the training is expected be done in a South African institution, but being in such a specialised field, there are little or no opportunities to achieve this target. The South Africa Qualifications Authority is not acquainted with the type of training our industry requires, and does not recognise the overseas training. Training for the industry is a costly business.”

“The SAIMC technical committee, of which I am a member, is addressing the skills issue, and we have recently engaged with the University of Johannesburg to relook at their courses and update the programme so that students are trained on the latest technologies deployed in industry. We still have a problem with the way trade tests are done. It is based on what was relevant 15 years ago. We need to change this!

“Customers are not always willing to send their people to our training centre, where we do specific training based on their processes and the equipment installed. Some companies want us to train their technicians in-house so that if a breakdown or a problem occurs they can be pulled off training to sort out the problem. That is far from ideal.

“The sophisticated equipment of today should provide trouble-free service for at least 10 to 15 years, provided regular maintenance is scheduled, while some of our installed base is very much older. Some believe in investing in maintenance, while others say: run to failure and replace. The latter should rethink this position. It may appear cheaper, but if you start calculating production losses and disruption of service to their customers, it does not support their philosophy.”

There is currently much discussion about the “internet of things” and Industry 4.0, and the process measurement industry is not immune from this. “It will change our world”, said MacKenzie. “It is now possible to remotely monitor every piece of equipment on a laptop, tablet or even a smart phone.  This will shift the expert level to a central point, and skills training will have to be refocused. Problems can be identified and maintenance scheduled proactively. I believe our industry has an exciting future.”

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