SA faces challenge with shortage of specialist skills in renewable energy sector

BY: Barend Mathee

It is more clear than ever that South Africa needs renewable energy with yet another round of load shedding currently in effect.

Government has opened up the power sector, with various bid windows of the Renewable Independent Power Producer Programme (REIPPP) as well as new regulations permitting private companies to generate up to 100MW of power. However, implementing renewable power requires specialist skills, and while there may be qualified people available, the newness of the sector in the country means that there is a significant lack of experience around these skills.

In order to deliver the REIPPP as well as make private power generation feasible in South Africa, electrical engineers, managers and technicians, particularly around solar and wind technology, will be in high demand.

Not just about skills, but experience

With new power solutions come new skills. In order to deliver the REIPPP as well as make private power generation feasible in South Africa, electrical engineers, managers and technicians, particularly around solar and wind technology, will be in high demand. There is a clear need for skills and training in the energy sector.

However, the gap is not just around skills but around experience. There are people in the country who have the qualifications and certifications on paper to fulfil the required roles, but there is a distinct lack of real-world exposure. Hiring skilled and experienced staff from overseas is not a cost effective or feasible option either.

It has become essential to empower certified but inexperienced people to learn on the job from those who have the experience. This will not only facilitate skills transfer and development, but also to meet local content and economic development obligations to ultimately enhance preferential procurement obligations.

Creating a long-lasting and positive economic impact in communities

The real challenge, other than ensuring that skills are available to help REIPPP projects and private power get off the ground, is in creating a long-lasting and positive economic impact in communities. These big projects will create short-term employment opportunities in local communities that are typically both rural and underserved, but once the plant is completed, available employment will be dramatically reduced.

To create long-term economic growth and development, skills development needs to be broader than simply specialist skills. Business skills, communication skills, entrepreneurship, finance skills, and more importantly mentoring, will empower individuals to create and grow their own economic footprint within their communities. This will not only help to uplift the communities, it will also create potential locally-based preferential procurement partners for the power producers to help them meet their obligations in the long term.

Sustainable solutions

For South Africa to benefit from true sustainability, not only in terms of power generation but economic development, a long-term view is essential. It needs to be approached from a holistic perspective, and skills development needs a strategic view to become more than just a tick box exercise.

Partnering with an employment and skills development provider with a local presence in the rural areas where plants are being built, who understands the local content and economic development obligations, and has experience in similar projects, is critical. It is also essential to ensure that your people partner has the right infrastructure and financial stability to support these new projects and is both compliant and has transparent business ethics. The right partner will be able to support various functions throughout projects, from start to finish and beyond, delivering benefits to business and communities in the long term.

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