Jan 19th, 2011
Viv Crone, CIO of Spescom Ltd, has received the Engineer of the Year Award from the South African Institute of Electrical Engineers (SAIEE). The award recognises, among others, Crone’s involvement in the promotion of electrical science and its application for the benefit of the South African community.
It’s a significant honour that he, and Spescom, believe sheds much needed focus on the need to skill up the future workforce in vital technologies – at the most basic levels.
The SAIEE, formed in 1909, has over 5000 members who are professionally engaged in a range of engineering activities, including academic research, manufacturing, electronics, telecommunications, measurement and control, mining, and power infra-structural services. The SAIEE Engineer of the Year Award is awarded to a member of the SAIEE who has energetically and voluntarily worked towards promoting electrical science and its applications for the benefit of SAIEE members and the Southern African community through his/her involvement in Institute affairs. The award is sponsored by Actom.
Crone, a member of the SAIEE for over 30 years has served as a SAIEE Council member for over 15 years. His accomplishments on a professional level are considerable, having managed the development of a number of technology firsts for Spescom, namely the first keypad pre-payment meter, first VoIP voice recorder and first integrated mobile voice recording system. More recently, as CIO of Spescom, he has managed the design, construction and commissioning of South Africa’s first dedicated carrier neutral co-location facility – a neutral telecoms hub that will allow competitive interconnection of carrier networks to the betterment of the telecoms landscape in SA and Africa.
On a community level, his contributions are making a very specific impact.
In 2007, he responded to a call from Nhlanhla Maphalala, chairman of the Bergville Community Builders (BCB) in KwaZulu-Natal, to get industry and business to give something back into the community. Initiating a collaborative effort between the SAIEE, Wits School of Electrical Engineering, the BCB and Spescom, he created an outreach programme that focuses on improving the level of knowledge of science educators and high school learners in the region.
Explains Crone: “There is an extensive skills shortage in South Africa, especially at all levels in the technical fields. Quite simply, in many areas, the basic education system fails to provide sufficient education or stimulation of interest in engineering or technical areas of study. In addition, in the rural areas of South Africa schools lack internet communications or even access to computers. This in conjunction with large classes, educators that have varying levels of knowledge and skill mean that very many learners do not reach their potential. These challenges all contribute to a poor senior certificate pass rate, with very few of these learner graduates achieving science and mathematics qualifications at a sufficiently high level to pursue a technical career. The Bergville initiative is aimed at mitigating the impact of these harsh realities.”
Beginning in 2007, sessions were organised to help increase the knowledge of local science teachers. Says Crone: “Post graduate students from Wits would go to Bergville on a Thursday evening and teach sessions to the teachers on Friday and Saturday. The areas covered would be identified by the teachers ahead of time. We put together experiments that used common materials that could be easily acquired in the rural areas, like a demonstration of electrostatic force using polystyrene cups, or a demonstration of electromagnetism using a nail, copper wire and battery. It was astounding how much interest and ad-hoc experimentation that these hands-on demos stimulated among the teachers.”
A second part of the programme focused on the learners. Five Grade 12 learners with suitable aptitude from each of the region’s 40 high schools were invited to the Okhahlamba Education Centre in Bergville on Saturdays, where extra science and maths lessons are presented by the local teachers.
There were a number of challenges, not least getting the children from remote areas to the centre. Transport costs are sponsored by Spescom as these can be a substantial proportion of the household income in the area.
“This is a small effort but one we hope will give rural learners the opportunity to improve their science and mathematics skills. There is much focus in the media on post graduate skills but it is at a very basic level that technical skills need to be introduced and grown in this country.”
The lack of these skills impacts our everyday quality of life. “Take, for example, the disrepair to the country’s transport infrastructure or the challenges in our electrical and water utilities infrastructure,” he says.
“It’s not that we don’t have the manpower; it’s that the manpower lacks basic understanding of scientific and mathematical principles to inform critical decision making. We don’t just need engineers; we need effective engineering teams with technical knowledge at varying levels. Simply put, if the lights are off, it is no use worrying about performing the latest research.”
Making a difference – on a corporate or individual level – is not as easy as signing up, however. Says Crone: “It’s easy to donate the money or sponsor the effort, but what we really need is for people to be available to pass on their skills. We certainly want to expand these initiatives once we are satisfied that we have suitably refined our outputs, but we want partners who understand the challenge we face and are willing to go the extra mile.”