Industry focuses on engineering talent development

The automated Sunlight dishwashing liquid line at Unilever’s state-of-the-art Khanyisa factoryUnilever, the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and the Chemical Industries Education & Training Authority (CHIETA) have entered into a unique partnership for young engineers. The aim is to develop fundamentally better engineers at tertiary level, while cultivating best practice engineering concepts that are applicable to the industry.

This long-term strategic programme, currently in its pilot phase, was kick started on 19 January during a formal ceremony at Unilever’s state-of-the-art Khanyisa liquids manufacturing factory in Boksburg, Gauteng. This is where the country’s top employer produces its popular home care brands like Omo, Handy Andy, Domestos, Comfort and Sunlight. The R1.4 billion factory was opened in June 2015 as part of Unilever’s R4 billion investment strategy in South Africa, which was implemented between 2010 and 2015.

The factory boasts a streamlined and highly efficient production process from filling right through to packing and overwrapping ready for dispatch. This rules out Unilever’s need to rely on finished product imports to meet local demand in the home care segment. For example, the factory produces 300 bottles of Sunlight dishwashing liquid per minute and 240 tonnes of Sunlight laundry bar soap daily.

Speaking at the launch, Ajit Gopalakrishnan, source unit director at Khanyisa and one of the original masterminds behind the programme, said it was an exciting day for Unilever in that the multinational company is going against the grain by removing the limitations to transformation in the engineering sector. This is because the programme specifically targets previously disadvantaged students who are faced with financial and social support issues, which can have a negative effect on their ability to complete their studies. 

A one-of-a-kind opportunity

Recent statistics released by the Department of Higher Education & Training indicate that as little as 15 to 25 per cent of students who enroll in formal tertiary education programmes go on to complete them. At Wits, roughly 40 per cent of students who enroll to study mechanical, industrial or aeronautical engineering degrees ultimately obtain their qualification. This is a concern given that engineering has appeared on South Africa’s scarce skills list for over a decade coupled with the high rate of unemployment among the youth. It is believed these poor completion rates are unlikely to be a result of academic aptitude given the minimum entry criteria for at engineering qualification at Wits is equivalent to that required for medicine or actuarial science.

Professor Robert Reid, head of the School of Mechanical, Industrial and Aeronautical Engineering at Wits explains: ‘Our own research revealed that these low completion rates are primarily the result of insufficient funding, inadequate family or social support, lack of mentorship or exposure to the industry to obtain practical skills and understanding.’

In order to address these challenges, the public-private academic partnership between Unilever, Wits and CHIETA will see 30 engineering students from the university, who have completed their second or third year of study, working full time for one year at Khanyisa.

The students, who embarked on their formal employment on 20 January, have been amalgamated into the factory operations team, giving them practical exposure to the production process and an opportunity to develop their technical and problem solving skills. According to Sandeep Desai, Unilever’s vice president of manufacturing for South and southern Africa, the programme is set to change engineering skills development in South Africa and will ultimately have a fundamental impact on our country’s economy.

The students will also have the opportunity to engage and develop mentoring relationships with qualified engineers and industry professionals, establishing networks that have the potential to help them succeed.

Fundamental building blocks

To ensure the success of the programme the participating students embarked on workplace readiness training for a period of four weeks before joining Unilever. This was provided by youth employment accelerator, Harambee, to equip the students with key skills and the confidence needed to cope in a corporate, technical and manufacturing environment. The various solutions offered by Harambee also seek to mitigate the risks for employers when employing first-time workers.

Furthermore, to ensure academic continuity, a lecturer has been appointed by Wits, on behalf of Unilever, to supervise and monitor the students for the period they are employed. The supervision will continue for their remaining two years of study to ensure they complete their qualification. The lecturer will be responsible for ensuring students continue to be exposed to academic content and material while working to ensure a seamless transition back into academia in 2017. Students participating in this programme will also receive financial sponsorship from Unilever to complete their engineering qualification, without future obligation to the organisation.

In addition to the obvious benefit of this practical work experience for the students, the programme will provide Unilever’s current operators, many of whom aspire to higher qualification levels, the opportunity to learn technical skills from the undergraduate students with whom they will work and interact with on a daily basis.

Contributing to economic development

Phumzile Lekgoathi, a third year mechanical engineering student at Wits is one of the participants. She says this programme is a ‘mind opening opportunity that provides lessons, which you don’t get at university’.

Lekgoathi adds: ‘I will gain an understanding of the simple principles of the working world as well as an enhanced engineering experience. It will help me channel my passion, as this is a cornerstone. Once I pass, I will have a plan of how I want to contribute to the industry. It is an endorsement to my career and qualifications.’

According to Antoinette Irvine, Unilever’s vice president of human resources, the company will explore similar opportunities at some of its other factories in order to strengthen the objectives of these partnerships. ‘Our growth strategy can only be fulfilled through the recruitment of talented and capable candidates. This exciting programme will not only change the face of academia, it will also create a brighter future for engineering students and South Africa as a whole,’ she concludes.


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