Petroleum, oil and gas engineering available to third year students at Wits to bridge skills gap

GASSING UP?: The Richard Ward building known for housing chemical and metallurgical engineering students will now be the home for petroleum and gas engineering students. Photo: Lameez Omarjee

GASSING UP?: The Richard Ward building known for housing chemical and metallurgical engineering students will now be the home for petroleum, oil and gas engineering students. Photo: Lameez Omarjee

By Lameez Omarjee and Tracey Ruff

In an effort to help improve and retain the level of specialised skills in the country, Wits University is introducing petroleum, oil and gas engineering as a third-year specialisation option for chemical engineering students from the beginning of next year.

This programme will be the first of its kind in South Africa and is aimed at meeting the needs of a growing demand for expertise in the hydrocarbon (petroleum and gas) industry.

Unfortunately, exorbitant costs of bringing in experts from abroad to work in the local industry, especially in maintenance for ageing refineries.

“The government brings expertise from overseas which (sic) they pay heavily, because we don’t have the skills in the country,” explained Professor Sunny Iyuke, head of school of chemical and metallurgical engineering at Wits.

According to Iyuke, there is a “big gap” in South Africa with “the skills to maintain the refineries” being largely absent.  He believes South Africa has a “smart youth, which can be trained to attain these skills”.

Iyuke explained to Wits Vuvuzela that this is not a new degree as such but rather a specialisation at the third year level.

Reducing the gap

Wits currently offers a Master of Sciences (MSc) degree with a specialisation in petroleum and gas engineering. The new specialisation option though will be made available to third year BSc students.

According to Iyuke, “It is better that [students] have a background knowledge at undergraduate level [and] that is why we [Wits] are introducing this [programme] for our graduates to have that basis and background of petroleum engineering”.

With this initiative, Iyuke believes “our own people will develop others,” instead of losing money by paying overseas experts.

Students responses

Wits students have responded positively to the plans for the undergraduate specialiation.

Neo Khesa, 4th year chemical engineering said, “introducing petroleum and gas engineering is great because naturally it helps the country as it makes it cheaper to source skills from within the country.”

“I want to go into the petroleum industry and I would have opted to do this course from second year if I had the option.  It was the main reason I did chemical engineering in the first place,” added Khesa.

Fortune Mngomezulu, 1st year chemical engineering, is keen on going into this industry because “there’s a lot of money involved”.

However, some students expressed their reservations about the idea, with Mohammed Sayanvala, 4th year chemical engineering  saying, “I would prefer that South African students join the rest of the world in innovating with cleaner technology … We invite big companies from other countries to take advantage of our resources and none of it comes back to Africa.  We need innovative, cleaner, greener and freer technology and courses to be introduced”.

Phutheo Magada, 3rd year chemical engineering, was concerned about whether there would be jobs available in the field.  But  Iyuke reassured him, “It [the petroleum] is a huge industry, if you don’t have a job here, you can always get one somewhere else, like Mozambique.”

Desmond Fiawoyife, doctoral student in metallurgical engineering, believes that introducing the option at undergraduate level is a good idea. “It’s a nice programme, because when you look at Africa, we have a lot of oil that has been discovered, especially in West Africa.  We need to train Africans to solve African problems, because we will better understand them. We have a new dawn now.  The days of getting expertise from abroad are over.”