With millions of South Africa’s young people desperate for jobs and for opportunities to develop and ultimately earn a good living, the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Department of Mechanical Engineering within the Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment has a story of hope to tell. It has been creating such opportunities for aspirants for more than a decade, with excellent outcomes.
The department has a multi-year apprenticeship programme that aims to provide candidates with the opportunity for in-service training and to ultimately become qualified artisans. The programme not only makes a valuable contribution to developing young talent for UCT, but for the broader mechanical engineering sector in South Africa as well.
Launched in January 2011 with one female and one male apprentice, the programme is currently led by Pierre Smith, who described it as being “extremely successful so far”.
The Staff Learning Centre supports Smith in accessing an external grant income from the Mechanical, Engineering and Related Service SETA, which subsidises the salary costs of the apprentices during their training programme. “Without the help of the Staff Learning Centre, I would not be able to obtain the funds needed for the project to continue.”
This youth month, three people who have qualified as artisans through the programme reflect on their journey. Two of them are currently employed in permanent positions in the department, while one is on a T1 contract. This because Smith believes the programme should grow it’s own timber, said Karin Smit, the manager of the Centre and Skills Development Facilitator.
Currently a technical officer in the department, Thulani Lieke said he was nearing the end of a Computer Numerical Control Machining course at Northlink College when he was made aware of an advertisement for the apprenticeship. He fitted the criteria and wasted no time submitting his application.
In his current position, Lieke provides technical support to the teaching and research function of the department.
“Technical support is primarily precision machining of components designed by academic staff and students. The apprenticeship meant loads to me, as I was able to grow my knowledge and skills in my trade, in an environment where I could draw from a pool of knowledge of experienced colleagues and like-minded individuals to gain my toolmaker qualification,” he noted.
Lieke’s future plans are to complete his computer-aided drawings and computer-aided manufacturing courses with the aim of becoming a permanent member of the workshop team. These are specialised computer numerical control courses that are used to operate the sophisticated CNC machines.
A qualified artisan who is now a senior technical officer in the department, Grant Springle, like Lieke, was still enrolled as a student at Northlink College when he learned of the apprenticeship programme.
Springle had had no connection with UCT prior to joining the programme in 2013. However, he said he is now “very proud” to be a part of the university. “I have been exposed to things I never thought I would ever encounter. Being a part of the Department of Mechanical Engineering is a privilege. Through the apprenticeship programme, I obtained my red seal certificate in tool-, jig- and die-making.”
As a senior technical officer, he is a member of the department’s support staff. Looking back, he said, he never thought he would have these opportunities that he has now. He is thankful for the many senior staff members who mentored him, including his manager, Smith.
While Springle would like to further his studies in manufacturing, he would also like to explore coding and electronics.
The very first female to qualify from the apprenticeship programme in 2013, Laureen Bailey was appointed the department’s facilities manager earlier this year.
Having just completed her training as a toolmaker at Northlink College, she was informed that UCT would like to interview her for the apprenticeship programme that was about to be launched at that stage. “I was successful and started my apprenticeship in 2011. It was a great opportunity, as apprenticeships were scarce, and it was tough for women in the industry at the time.”
Bailey said completing her apprenticeship at UCT has opened many doors for her. Besides being a qualified toolmaker, she has also completed a diploma in early childhood development, as well as short courses in management.
As the line manager of the Facilities and IT department, she plans, assists and oversees maintenance and IT, while also collaborating with the workshop manager to ensure that the department runs smoothly.
She is in the process of starting a hand skills programme with the assistance and guidance of her colleagues and she would like to complete a degree in mechanical engineering before her 40th birthday.
“I am excited about my work and about what is to come!” she said.
Reflecting on the journey of the apprentices, Smith said “I’ve been watching these young people develop into positive, professional artisans. Some of them started off very unsure and intimidated, but are now a part of the UCT community, helping students to become engineers.”
Asked how suitable candidates are selected for the programme, Smith said it helped that he had a good working relationship with Northlink College in Goodwood. While the college is not the only institution receiving calls for apprentices, Smith said it was the only one that offers the particular skill set needed. When opportunities are advertised, the college is notified and applications pour in. “Candidates from the college have a head start, as they have by then all done the basics and have a good idea of what is expected of them.”
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