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Authors: Merrifield, A., Mbuthia, G., Manchidi, E. and Nkado, R.


This paper reports on aspects of study undertaken by the Council for the Built Environment (CBE),
the overarching body for the built environment professions, to determine the present and forecasted
skills demand for the built environment professions in South Africa. This paper focuses on the
forecast of professionals skills and discussed how such a forecast was constructed (the broader
methodological questions are discussed in a separate paper by Mbuthia, G et al).

The paper seeks to explain how the forecasted demand for professional skills in the South African
built environment was created. It seeks to discuss the nature of the South African construction and
infrastructure economy, and how demand in such an economy determines the skills requirements for
particular built environment skills. It argues that the dynamics of such an economy make it difficult to
make use of formal modelling techniques and instead suggests that a more contextual analysis is
required. The paper also refers to similar studies conducted in the South Africa and discusses the
policy implications of such research. This contextual analysis is then used to create two scenarios for
skills demand.

Whilst the research reported in this paper is perhaps limited by its lack of formal modelling
techniques, it seeks to show that a more contextual approach can still be useful in the policy
environment because it may force policy makers to reassess their assumptions although it is too early
to say whether this has occurred in South Africa. Finally, given that the original forecast was
constructed more than 12 months ago, and events anticipated in the forecast have come to pass, the
paper concludes by assessing the usefulness of such studies.

Keywords: construction demand, skills forecasting, built environment professions


The concern over built environment skills really only surfaced in the early 2000‟s when, after a long
period of slow growth in the built environment sector, the construction and related infrastructure
sectors took off. As we can see from Graph 1 below, after reaching a highpoint in the mid-1980‟s,
most construction investment declined or stagnated till the early 2000‟s.

Graph 1: Gross Fixed Capital Formation by Asset Type

Construction GFCF by Asset Type


R'Millions (constant 2000 prices)


30000 NonResidential
Civil Works




Source: SARB Q42008

The above graph also shows, that not only was the construction sector in decline for almost
two decades, but that the various sub-sectors of the construction economy experienced significant
volatility. One of the main impacts of this decline and volatility was that built environment skills in the
country were depleted as professionals, technicians and skilled artisans migrated to other industries
and/or countries (Merrifield 1994, Lawless 2005).

It is therefore not surprising that in the early 2000‟s, concerns about skills shortages began to
surface due to the improvement in demand in the various construction sectors. The private sector
remained the main driver of this demand with mega-projects like Sasol‟s Project Turbo and various
property developments (NACI 2003, Merrifield 2006). The 2003 NACI study was largely prompted by
concerns in Sasol and various mining houses that there were insufficient built environment skills to
meet the demand of new projects. By 2006, the concerns had been exacerbated by new projects
being announced in the private and public sectors as the country experienced significant growth for
the first time in decades. By the time the CIDB study (Merrifield 2006) and the PCAS Study (Sudeo
IBC 2007) were commissioned the construction economy was running a close to full capacity and the
skills challenge had been identified by a team of international economists advising the Presidency as
one of the binding constraints to growth (Hausmann 2008).

In structures such as the Joint Initiative on Priority Skills Acquisition (JIPSA) and the various
working groups set up by government to promote economic growth (ASGISA - Accelerated & Shared
Growth Initiative for South Africa), skills shortages were identified as having the potential of halting
the current and expected economic growth trajectory (Merrifield et al 2006). Other government
initiatives to promote service delivery in local government highlighted skills constraints in this part of
the infrastructure sector (Lawless 2005, 2008). In addition, ambitious plans to promote local industry
development on the back of the electricity and transportation infrastructure investment thrusts made
the skills issue seem all the more urgent (TSAPRO 2008, CBE 2008b, Merrifield 2009).

Graph 2: Gross Fixed Capital Formation by Organisation

GFCF by Organisation


R'million (constant 2000 prices)


100000 Public Corp





Source: SARB Q42008

As we see from Graph 2 above, the private sector has consistently led in investing in
infrastructure and related construction goods and services and it is only in the last ten years that the
public sector and public corporations have begun to show improvement. In the mid-2000‟s the private
sector was investing heavily propelled largely by the revival of the commodities markets especially for
minerals and metals. On top of an already active property market, the commodities markets
experienced the longest sustained boom since the Second World War (discussed in CBE 2008b,
Merrifield 2009).

If we examine the economic sectors that have driven this growth in infrastructure investment
(Graph 3 below), we find that the finance, property and business services have been the lead
economic sector, followed by manufacturing and community services. Obviously the first two are
private sector oriented whilst the third is public sector. Public corporation investment has in recent
years also become more prominent with transportation and communication ranking fourth and
electricity coming in seventh although it reflects significant growth in the 2000‟s. Other key private
sectors include wholesale and retail (fifth) and mining (sixth). The latter in particular reflects the
extreme volatility of the mining sector.


Graph 3: Gross Fixed Capital Formation by Sector

GFCF by Economic Activity


Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing

Mining and Quarrying


Electricity gas and water



30000 Wholesale and Retail Trade, Catering and

Transport, Storage and Communication

20000 Finance, Property and Business Services

Community Services

1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006

Source: SARB Q42008

Given the above trends, it was not surprising that policy makers assumed that growth was
sustainable and that skills shortages were likely to be a concern as more and more infrastructure
investment projects were announced (Nedbank 2008). The massive increase in large or mega-
projects tended to distort perceptions that skills shortages were likely to overwhelm economic growth.
In the CBE report on demand side issues, these mega projects were analysed and disaggregated.
What we found was that even though there was a significant expansion of such mega-projects (see
Graph 4 below), most of these projects required specialised skills which were not in demand in other
such projects. It was only at the level of more generic and basic skills that there would be completion
for skills amongst such projects (Merrifield 2006, CBE 2006b).

For instance, a large component of the electricity infrastructure investment was in coal-fired
power stations whilst a significant component of the transportation investment was in harbour
upgrades (mainly cranes or dredging) and pipelines. Although there would be significant competition
in some built environment fields such as civil engineering, the most critical skills demands would be
for highly trained and experienced specialists such as turbine engineers or pipeline engineers who
would be required in small numbers (in the order of magnitude of tens rather than hundreds or
thousands). Although the companies involved in such infrastructure development were struggling to
find such specialists in a world market which was experiencing 5-6% growth (in 2005-7), and who
noticeably complained about such skills shortages in the media and in government sponsored
forums, such skills shortages were ultimately overcome in traditional ways (paying higher salaries,
overseas recruitment, etc.). The larger demand for skills for such projects was in more basic and
generic professional and artisanal skills which could be supplied through improved training and
mentoring programmes (Merrifield et al 2006).

Graph 4: Mega-Projects by Sector



40000 Mining

20000 Airports


2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017

Source: Engineering News Database

In light of these concerns in both the public and private sectors, it was inevitable that the
Council for the Built Environment (CBE) would commission research to understand the demand for
skills in the built environment. In that study, the authors of this paper refined a series of assumptions
which would enable them to forecast the demand for such skills.

Understanding the demand for skills

There are a number of recent South African studies that have sought to understand the skills
challenges around built environment professionals. These studies were commissioned by public
sector institutions with private sector support and their intended purpose was to assist these
institutions to address any future skills shortages.
These include :

 2003 National Advisory Council on Innovation (NACI) study,

 2005 South African Institute of Civil Engineering (SAICE) study,
 2006 Construction Industry Development Board (CIDB) study,
 2007 study done for the Policy Co-ordination and Advisory Services (PCAS) in the Presidency,
 2008 Council for the Built Environment (CBE) Skills Audit (Demand Side),
 2008 Council for the Built Environment (CBE) Skills Audit (Supply Side),
 2009 Employment Promotion Project (EPP) Study on the demand for skills in the Electricity

With the exception of the SAICE and the CBE (Supply Side) studies which will be discussed
further below, the five other studies employ a similar methodology. All these studies sought to
estimate the future growth in the particular environments they analyzed, and on the basis of that
estimate they decomposed the volume of growth into specific industry and project sub-sectors. They
then used estimates of skills required per project type to calculate the number of people with
particular skills that would be required. In other words, these studies sought to quantify the amount of

The full citations are included in the bibliography. The primary author of this paper was responsible for the
2006 CIDB study, the forecasting component of the CBE Skills Audit (Demand Side) and the 2009 EPP Study.


future work and then attempted to account for the numbers required to perform that work. In all
instances they used expert opinion to quantify the skills requirements.

The five studies tended to focus largely on the future flow of work (and skills required) and did
not provide sufficient analysis of the existing stock of skills. The implicit assumption was that this new
quantum of work was over and above the existing levels of demand. Although in at least three
instances (the CIDB, the PCAS, and EPP studies) flow as well as stock of skills was estimated, none
of these studies focused on the issue of the stock of available skills. By contrast, the SAICE study
provided an in-depth analysis of the current stock of civil engineering skills and showed how this
stock was rapidly being depleted. The CBE (Supply Side) study attempted to provide similar analysis
for all the built environment professions but the level of data aggregation only offered a macro

Clearly the future demand for skills will ultimately be determined both by the increase in the
level of new work as well as the current depletion of the infrastructure skills base. However, this
paper, which is based on work completed for the CBE (Demand Side) study, will focus primarily on
the demand side forecasting.

The above review of recent South African studies suggests that there is a future professional
skills deficit but that the quantum of demand is within manageable levels. All studies have sought to
project future skills demands by understanding the level of demand in the industry as a whole and in
the four latter studies, CIDB, PCAS, CBE and EPP, this future demand is dis-aggregated into specific
construction sub-sectors and mega-projects. Such an analysis reveals that much of the value of
future infrastructure investment will be in materials, plant and equipment, and that the demand for
professional skills is in the order of magnitude of hundreds and thousands. If however, one were to
decompose these hundreds and thousands, the demand for high-level specialists will be in the order
of tens, and it is only in the more junior categories where there is a demand for a couple of hundreds
in each sub-sector.

Finally, it should be noted that despite the concerns expressed in the earlier studies that the
industry would not be able to cope with the „sudden‟ increase in demand, four years after these early
studies were initiated the industry is still coping, albeit at high levels of capacity utilization. What this
indicates is not that concern over skills shortages is misplaced (there is ample evidence discussed
further below that skills constraints will continue to be a problem), but that it is reasonable to
anticipate that the industry, and the professions, will also seek ways to mitigate these constraints. By
so doing, the overall productivity of the built environment will improve.

Beyond the substantive conclusions summarised above, these studies also suggest that that
there is a series of assumptions involved when one is seeking to understand the skills requirements
for the development, operations and maintenance of infrastructure:

1. It can be assumed that the available stock of infrastructure must be operated, maintained and
perhaps rehabilitated or decommissioned. The state of the infrastructure stock matters. Firstly, if,
as in the case of electricity in South Africa , it under-supplies current and future demand then it
can be expected that in addition to operating and maintaining such infrastructure, it will be
necessary to add the current stock to meet new demand. Such an increase in supply will have
skills requirements over and above what would normally be required for operations and
maintenance. Secondly, if the existing infrastructure stock has not been maintained adequately,
the condition of the infrastructure is likely to affect normal operations, and therefore, given the

These assumptions were used in the CBE 2008b paper upon which this paper is based. It has also been used by
the primary author in several other of his forecasts especially Merrifield 2006, Merrifield 2009.
Electricity is the most obvious sector because of the recently experienced blackouts, but almost across all
major sectors including transportation (especially roads, rail and ports), water, social facilities (hospitals,
schools, prisons) there is a significant maintenance deficit (see Merrifield 1999).

likelihood of an increased level of outages, additional skills may be required for operations,
maintenance and even rehabilitation to restore the current stock to an acceptable service level.

2. It can be assumed that there is an available stock of skills to operate and possibly develop new
infrastructure. As a result of the stagnation in infrastructure development since the early 1990‟s, it
is likely that the stock of people with the skills and experience of developing and operating such
infrastructure would have diminished due to retirements, emigration and death (amongst other
things). Thus in determining skills requirements, it is necessary to estimate current and future
needs but also understand the state of the skills supply (both in terms of whether the
replacements have appropriate training and experience). If the supply is unable to replace those
lost and those required for new infrastructure development, then it can be assumed that there will
be a skills deficit.

3. It can be assumed that where the technologies, construction, manufacturing and labour
processes remain the same as before, that the skills shortfall will largely be the difference
between the skills required to meet redress the deficit in infrastructure stock and the available
skills. However, where technologies, construction, manufacturing and labour processes have
changed significantly from those in the past, then even if there is a sufficient stock of available
skills, these may not be appropriate for the new infrastructure developments. It can also be
assumed that some replacement skilled personnel may have the appropriate training in these
new technologies, construction, manufacturing and labour processes, but not sufficient work
experience to apply this training, whilst those within the existing skills pools may have work
experience but insufficient familiarity with the new technologies, construction, manufacturing and
labour processes. In either circumstance a skills deficit will arise.

4. It can be assumed that the degree of specialisation will intensify with both training and
experience. Whilst the majority of skills required will be more basic and generic which means that
people with these skills can be assigned to a variety of tasks without loss of quality or
productivity, those with the more specialised skills will be more difficult to substitute. Fortunately,
research shows that the demand for highly specialised skills is relatively low and therefore can be
more easily addressed than is generally assumed in the discourse over skills shortages
(Merrifield 2006). Key to this assumption is the understanding that skills shortages are often
inversely related to the level of specialisation. It may be expensive and may require a significant
amount of time and energy to recruit such specialists, but ultimately the cost, time and energy is
mitigated because there are only a small number of such specialists required. By contrast, there
may be a need for many more basic and generic skills, but this demand is mitigated by the fact
that there is greater substitutability amongst these more basic skills sets and, also, that it is easier
to recruit, train and provide the appropriate work experience for the greater numbers of these
basic skills.

5. It can be assumed that the state of the national and international economy has an impact on the
demand for skills. When the skills first became an issue in the early 2000‟s, the South African and
World Economy were undergoing the longest economic boom since the Second World War. In
addition, after almost twenty years of neglect, the government and parastatals had embarked on
an ambitious infrastructure investment programme. Notwithstanding the pressures arising from
these two drivers, there have been few reports of any projects being delayed or postponed
because of skills shortages. Skills were difficult to come by, but they have not yet interrupted the
new infrastructure development . Now, with the world and national economy in a significant
recession, with little prospect of an early improvement, it can be assumed that more skills will
become available as firms postpone new investment and those firms involved in infrastructure
delivery downsize.

All the above assumptions were tested in the research process and were used to develop two
scenarios to forecast future skills demand in the built environment professions.

See CBE 2008b data from firms which not reported in detail in this paper.


Using scenarios to develop an understanding of future skills demand

In the forecasts of the demand for professional skills certain simplifying assumptions were made. The
forecasts are based on the broad SARB defined categories of residential, non-residential and civil
works since these aggregates define the main sectors of built environment activity. They also
provided long and stable time-series data against which to measure any future impact. Residential
refers to all housing from low-income housing units through to multi-story apartments and from single
units to multiple unit projects. Non-residential encompasses commercial and retail property, education
and health infrastructure (for both public and private sector) and other building related work. Civil
works encompasses most of the mega projects in the infrastructure services from transportation,
water and sanitation, energy, petro-chemicals and mining and industrial related developments.
Based on historic trends and anticipated changes in different economic sector as signalled by
the mega-project announcements, a series of high and low scenarios were developed for the total
GFCF, construction specific GFCF and the three construction sub-sectors (see Graphs 5 to 8 below).
These projections were then converted into skills projections for the different built environment skills
professions. The skills breakdowns were calculated from survey data commissioned by the study, to
find the quantum and categories of skills required for a certain volume of work in the different
construction sub-sectors.
The survey provided a breakdown of skills per project and sought the numbers of
professionals in ten categories . The survey enabled the researchers to concluded that the skills
demand differed both by project type and project size across the three built environment sectors.
Through a sensitivity analysis, it was then determined that project size ultimately had a limited impact
on overall skills demand across the project sizes although this study‟s projections have endeavoured
to err on the upper limit rather than the lower limit. However, the same project mix was used for all
three sectors since a 20% variation in project mix did not significantly affect the forecasts.
In terms of the three built environment sectors, the projections sought to define a basket of
skills (number of professionals by skills category) for each sector. These clearly differed between
sectors although the difference within sectors was so insignificant it did not justify a further
breakdown. This assumption was reinforced by the realization that it would be virtually impossible to
estimate the intra-sectoral breakdown across the forecast period. Therefore, the professional skills
basket differs across the three built environment sectors but not within each of these sectors, since
the variation within sectors did not have a major impact on the overall forecast. This means that, for
instance, the architecture, property valuation and landscape architecture professions do not feature in
the civil works sector although it is expected that a limited number of such skills will be used in this
sector. However, any skills deficit arising from an underestimation in this sector is likely to be
compensated for across all three sectors. Therefore, a forecast is provided for each professional
category in each of the sectors they are expected to be active, and then summed-up that in the
analysis of total demand per professional category.
These scenarios spelt out what would happen if current trends would continue (the high
scenario) and what will happen if, as has happened before, these trends are slowed down or
interrupted (the low scenario). Ultimately, reality may be somewhere between these two scenarios,
laying out the outer parameters provides a better position from which to estimate the demand for built
environment professionals.

For convenience these ten categories were selected to gather data through interviews since they give an
indicative sense of the most common skills required across the three built environment sectors. A fuller
discussion of the interviews is provided in CBE 2008b.

Graph 5: High and Low Scenarios for total GFCF




High Scenario
Low Scenario




Source: CBE 2008b

It is apparent that even with the low scenario, the growth of fixed capital continues albeit at a
slow rate. GFCF should increase by about 50% from current levels (from R220 billion to R330 billion).
The high scenario exhibits consistent increases such that the level of GFCF in 2025 will be almost
five times current levels (from R220 billion to R980 billion). In Graph 5, the total GFCF values were
used because as discussed in above, a major impetus for future demand will be the mega-projects of
the public corporations, and a large component of these projects is plant and equipment and transport
equipment. Plant and equipment and transport GFCF have traditionally grown at a faster rate than
construction GFCF.
However, given that this study‟s focus is primarily on the built environment, a projection has
also been developed using similar assumptions for the construction specific GFCF (Graph 6).

Graph 6: Construction Specific GFCF Scenarios

Construction Only GFCF





High Scenario
Low scenario





Source: CBE 2008b

These results for construction specific GFCF are slightly different because the components
making up these GFCF projections are different and experience different growth trajectories. Again
the low scenario sees a gradual increase to about 50% higher GFCF (from about R80 billion to R120
billion) over the period. The high scenario again shows just over a four times level of growth over the
period (from R80 billion to R336 billion) reflecting the slower growth rates of construction GFCF.


Turning to the different construction sectors, civil engineering is anticipated to be the primary
beneficiary of both the high and low scenarios due to the mega-projects and other components of the
Government‟s infrastructure drive.

Graph 7: High Scenario by Construction Sector

High Scenario




100000 Residential

80000 Civil Works




2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023 2024 2025

Source: CBE 2008b

In the low scenario, the impact of the mega-projects is even more pronounced on
construction works as both residential and non-residential experience virtually no growth over the
Graph 8: Low Scenario by Construction Sector

Low Scenario by Asset





50000 Residential

40000 Civil Works




2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023 2024

Source: CBE 2008b

As noted above, the shape of the projected trend lines is largely determined by the immediate
impact of the mega-projects which will continue even if the economy experiences a downturn.
Eventually, as was seen in South Africa in the late 1980s, even the public corporations will close the
tap and civil engineering demand will decline (due to overcapacity issues).
Using the estimates of skills required per construction category, we were then able to develop
a set of high and low projections for specific built environment skills.
Table 1: Demand for professionals under a high scenario

Professional Category Year

2008 2012 2016 2020 2024
Architect 2500 3200 3900 5200 8500
Quantity surveyor 2800 4000 5300 6600 9500
Structural engineer 2000 3100 4200 5100 7000
Civil engineer 2700 4400 6200 7300 9200
Mechanical engineer 2100 3100 4300 5200 7000
Electrical engineer 2200 3200 4400 5400 7300
Property valuer 1200 1542 1881 2501 4142
Construction manager 2000 3100 4200 5100 6800
Construction project manager 2000 3000 4200 5000 6700
Landscape architect 1000 1300 1600 2200 3600
Total 20500 29942 40181 49601 69742
Source: CBE 2008b

The high scenario skills projection suggests that most skills categories will increase around
threefold from current levels. However, even though such increases are significant, they are
manageable given the long time period over which these skills will be required.

Table 2: Demand for professionals under a low scenario

Professional Category Year

2008 2012 2016 2020 2024
Architect 2500 1800 1600 1900 2700
Quantity surveyor 2800 2600 2600 2700 3200
Structural engineer 2000 2100 2200 2200 2400
Civil engineer 2700 3200 3400 3200 3200
Mechanical engineer 2100 2200 2300 2200 2400
Electrical engineer 2200 2200 2300 2200 2500
Property valuer 1200 900 800 900 1300
Construction manager 2000 2200 2200 2200 2300
Construction project manager 2000 2200 2200 2200 2300
Landscape architect 1000 800 700 800 1200
Total 20500 20200 20300 20500 23500
Source: CBE 2008b

Low scenario projections suggest that demand for most professionals will stay close to
current levels with fluctuations resulting 20 – 30% increase over the period.


As noted above, when the initial forecasts were done for the CBE, South Africa was experiencing a
massive boom in the built environment due largely to the onset of the mega-projects. This boom was


built on a sustained growth phase in the built environment that had been maintained for the past
seven years. The key drivers of this boom included :
i. positive growth in the world economy (annual rates of between 5-6% during the mid-2000‟s),
ii. the longest commodity boom in the past fifty years,
iii. growth of a new (black) middle class,
iv. a recognition by public sector and public corporation decision-makers that we have been
under-investing in our infrastructure stock and, finally,
v. the fact that the country had the resources to make these investments.
Since September 2008, it is no longer possible to assume that the above drivers will be
restored (Nedbank 2009). It would not be necessary to discuss in detail the impact of these drivers
failing since the scenarios anticipated such a change in circumstance (see CBE 2008b). In the cold
light of day, since the world economy has gone into a major recession, it is much easier to accept the
low growth scenario than it was previously.
However for policy makers, it is necessary that they make use of findings such as these to
anticipate both possible futures. Although it is unlikely that we will see a resumption of growth in the
near future, instead of ignoring the problem, they should be putting in place the appropriate actions
and interventions to ensure that the country has the professional (and other) skills it requires when
the growth trajectory is restored (see recommendations in CBE 2008b). Even though this may take
longer than the political and professional lives of many in Government, they should take advantage of
the respite provided by the current recession to ensure that when infrastructure growth again
resumes there will be people with the necessary skills to ensure that it is built and maintained


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