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Filling the math-science gap in the Northern Cape

By South African Renewable Energy Council (SAREC) on 14 March 2017
Many of the skilled and semi-skilled jobs needed to keep power generators like this Bokpoort solar plant running smoothly, require recruiting locals who have high school-level maths and science. But literacy and numeracy rates are poor.

Eskom’s delays in signing the final contracts with the private companies that are scheduled to build a series of solar power plants in the Northern Cape, are throttling back development work that aims to nurture a generation of engineers and technicians and skilled professionals here. In these educational ‘backwaters’, schools are underfunded, literacy is low, and the dropout rates bleak. Intervention needs to start at kindergarten-level. 

Wanted: technically-minded school-leavers with maths and science as their subjects.  

That was the gist of the call for applicants that was circulated in and around the small town of Groblershoop, in the Northern Cape, last year.

The 50 megawatt Bokpoort concentrated solar thermal power plant (CSP) had just started operations, and it needed two things: semi-skilled, locally hired solar plant operators to oversee the day-to-day running of the plant; and it needed to meet its contractual obligation to the state, which stipulates that it must invest a percentage of its revenues into addressing the local community’s development needs, including through education and training. 

By recruiting the appropriate people from within a 50km radius of the plant, and training them up to be plant operators, they could hit two bulls’ eyes with one arrow. 

Bokpoort CSP plant owner ACWA Power hoped to recruit 25 people for its first intake in 2016. Each needed to have a minimum of a high school qualification, with maths and science.  But when applications started trickling in, the company was only able to fill 17 of the slots. And many of those were mature adults who had spent years in casual jobs or were unemployed. 

This, explains ACWA Power social development manager Donald Muller - himself a former school teacher from the area - indicates how few people here have maths and science at grade 12.

During a visit to the area in March, the South African Renewable Energy Council (SAREC) found that this was a common theme: low general literacy levels, high dropout rates, and poor maths and science skills in a schooling system that is underfunded and under resourced. 

There are several renewable energy plants that have recently started operations up here in the far Northern Cape, and more that are scheduled to be built here as part of the state’s Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement (REIPPP) programme. One of the conditions of their agreement with the state, is that a percentage of each plant’s staff will, where possible, be recruited from within communities that live in a 50km radius of the site. 

But when it comes to the skilled and semi-skilled jobs - many of which are technical or engineering in nature - there just isn’t a big enough pool in the area. And as this initiative by ACWA Power demonstrates, many of the school leavers don’t have the foundational level education to move into those jobs. This is one of the big development needs that power producers aim to address in their development obligations.