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The country needs talented black postgraduates says Aurecon

Ridhaa Hassiem and Leighton Leukes

Ridhaa Hassiem (L) and Leighton Leukes (R)

12 July 2016 - Diversity of thought gives global engineering and infrastructure advisory company Aurecon its competitive edge. This diversity is reliant on an inclusive workforce. The company, however, realises that South Africa will not produce a strong talent pool if it ignores the needs of the country’s disadvantaged students.

“A country’s education system doesn’t automatically produce the resources that its industries need. The private sector must play a role in ensuring the right skills are available to sustain the country’s growth and future success,” said Albert Geldenhuys, Aurecon’s recently retired Managing Director RSA and a passionate advocate of making a difference to the lives of talented disadvantaged black students through Aurecon’s postgraduate bursary programme.

Aurecon has recently confirmed it will meet the request for additional funding from the University of Cape Town and the University of Stellenbosch for postgraduate civil engineering bursaries for talented black postgraduates. Each university will receive R250 000 per year for the next two years.

“It is wonderful news that the company is able to extend its funding,” says Tutu Malinga, Aurecon BBBEE & CSI Programme Manager. “Coming from a disadvantaged background myself, I can appreciate the excellent opportunities the support provides for talented young black people to establish their professional standing and lay the platform for a rewarding career. We are currently looking to extend the programme to a third university.”

With demand for talented resources exceeding supply, there is an understandable attraction to enjoy the rewards of employment in an industry keen to recruit black graduates, rather than pursue further studies. Aurecon shared the concern of our faculties of engineering over the difficulty that they faced competing for academically talented, black undergraduates to take up postgraduate studies.

To address the issue, in 2011 Aurecon entered into a five-year comprehensive funding agreement for postgraduate civil engineering bursaries with the University of Cape Town and University of Stellenbosch. In terms of the agreement, each university received R400 000 in funding per year. Talented disadvantaged black graduates selected for a bursary had the added support of Aurecon’s well-established mentoring programme, which has been a significant contributor to strengthening the resolve of students to achieve high standards and complete their studies in the required time frame.

As a measure of the success of the postgraduate bursary scheme, nine students joined the University of Stellenbosch engineering faculty, four of whom have completed their Masters degrees, four are still in progress and one has completed a PhD. Similarly, the scheme enabled the University of Cape Town to recruit nine talented black students, three of whom were women, to undertake postgraduate studies in civil engineering. The University of Cape Town said this was an increase of 20% on their complement of postgraduate students and, with the support from industry, they would be able to continue building a diverse group of well-qualified civil engineers. 

Expressing its appreciation for Aurecon’s funding, the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Stellenbosch said in a letter that there are many challenges that face students during their study period and a bursary scheme such as Aurecon’s goes a long way in supporting and encouraging students, allowing them to focus on obtaining the required level of skills.

To date, three University of Stellenbosch students and two from the University of Cape Town who were on the programme have taken up employment offers from Aurecon. Completion of their studies does not mean the end of Aurecon’s support as the new employees will continue to have the benefit of the company’s mentoring programme. In addition to providing technical and practical help with ‘finding their feet’ in the company, the mentoring will guide them to achieving professional registration with the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA).

Two employees who benefitted from the scheme expressed their gratitude for the support they received from the company: “Through the Aurecon bursary at the University of Stellenbosch, I was able to be a full-time Masters student and really concentrate on my studies,” said Ridhaa Hassiem, MEng (Ports & Coastal). “This, along with the support of my mentor at Aurecon showed how much the company cares for the well-being and success of students in the programme. I am truly grateful to Aurecon for the opportunity to have furthered my studies.”

Leighton Leukes, MEng, related that for his first year of postgraduate study, he took out a student loan and applied for several university grants to cover his expenses. The Aurecon bursary, which he won for his second year of Masters, freed him from having to further indebt himself to pursue his ambition of graduating as a Master of Engineering from University of Cape Town. “In 2013, I achieved my academic goal, as well as had the good fortune to join the bridge design team at Aurecon Cape Town,” he said.

“Our bursary programme has been able to empower talented disadvantaged black students to contribute to civil engineering excellence in South Africa as well as enhance the diversity of talented employees in Aurecon,” commented Geldenhuys. “It has also strengthened academia and taken the first steps towards sustainability by enhancing diversity. With some of the bursary scheme graduates now junior lecturers, they are inspiring the next generation to become highly qualified civil engineers.”

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