A smooth operator in a traditionally male-dominated industry

Sisipho Gongqo recently completed a national certificate in construction plant operation.

Intent on making her mark in what has traditionally been a male-dominated industry, Sisipho Gongqo was one of the top performers out of a group of learners that recently completed its National Certificate in Construction Plant Operations.

Tjeka Training Matters, a privately registered Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) college that is accredited by the Construction Education Training Authority (CETA), undertook the training on behalf of the Western Cape Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP).

Like the other 11 unemployed people from George that participated in the training programe, Gongqo did not have previous experience operating construction machinery. She, therefore, had to first obtain a Code 14 license before she could be taught how to operate a front-end loader (FEL), motor grader and sit-on-roller.

For Gongqo, completing this course was an important first step taken towards achieving her longer-term goal of becoming a construction health and safety (H&S) officer in an industry that she has become increasingly interested in since attending Thembalethu High School.

“Once I have saved enough money after securing employment as an operator of construction equipment, preferably as a grader operator and eventually a final-level specialist on road construction projects, I intend enrolling for an Occupation Health & Safety course. This is a field of construction I recently became aware of during my training and where I believe that I will be able to add immense value,” she says.

This 27-year old women is part of a large group of young South Africans that are currently unemployed – a situation that is being exacerbated by the Covid-19 economic fallout.

Worryingly, the youth unemployment rate in the country increased to 59% in the first quarter of 2020 from 58,10% in the fourth quarter of 2019, while 8,2-million South Africans aged between 15 and 34 are not in employment, education or training.

She is, therefore, encouraged by government’s commitment to use construction as the “flywheel” of South Africa’s economic recovery from the Covid-19 crisis.

This is in addition to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s pledge to set aside 40% of government procurement to women-owned businesses in a bid to achieve equality.

A vow that was made on this year’s Women’s Day, it augments government’s already entrenched drive to transform the South African construction sector by ensuring large participation by women, especially from previously disadvantaged communities.

“While there are signs that women are starting to become better represented in the construction sector, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. Certainly, this focus provides a major opportunity for young unemployed black females such as me who want to break the mould. All that is required to make these dreams become a reality, is a ‘go-getter’ attitude,” she says.

By being the only female learner to enrol for the training and outperforming most of her male counterparts, Gongqo showed other aspiring female equipment operators exactly what is needed to be taken seriously in the construction industry. While the other learners were initially sceptical about her ability to operate “yellow metal”, they quickly warmed up to her and provided support.

Gongqo also lauds Tjeka’s team of trainers, namely Judy Ann, Andre Jacobs and Derek Jones, for the high-quality training that she received and the patience that they displayed throughout the programme, considering the level of experience of the learners.

“Prior to completing the course, we did not know anything about operating construction equipment or what makes them ‘tick’, such as diesel engines and hydraulics. Through the help of Tjeka and the Western Cape EPWP programme, we now have a critical skill that is needed on most construction and building sites, potentially opening more doors for us,” Gonqo says.

The decision to appoint Tjeka to conduct the training was based on the organisation’s strong track record providing high quality instruction to the South African civil and building industries since 2000. Moreover, it was the only CETA-accredited TVET private college for Construction Plant operators in the Western Cape at the time.

The intention of the training was to enable the learners to apply health and safety principles and understand plant operations in the construction environment. This is in addition to performing plant operation-related functions; adhering to plant operation personnel procedures; and understanding the mechanical and leveraging principles required to operate earthmoving, transport and/or ancillary plant safely and productively on construction and building sites.

These are in line with the onerous requirements of contractors whose increasing expectations are driving up standards in plant and machinery operations and, in so doing, fuelling the demand for proven competence to nationally recognised standards.

While the training is geared at advancing learners across the civil-engineering and building industries to ensure the upliftment of standards in general, these skills can also be deployed in plant hire operations, forestry, materials handling, opencast mining and the earthmoving equipment-manufacturing and supply industries.

Gongqo concludes by thanking the Western Cape EPWP and Tjeka for the incredible opportunity.