A key focus that arose out of discussions at this year’s International Federation of Consulting Engineers’ Group of African Member Associations (FIDIC GAMA) Conference, and which will be further explored at the FIDIC International Infrastructure Conference in October, is the need for resilience in the consulting engineering industry.
“Consulting engineers cannot allow themselves to stay set in their ways in a world that is constantly changing. If companies cannot adapt and become resilient, they may find themselves becoming extinct,” says industry representative Consulting Engineers South Africa (Cesa) CEO Christopher Campbell.
Cesa hosted the twenty-fourth FIDIC GAMA Conference – one of the biggest networking events for African consulting engineers – in Cape Town from May 7 to 10. The event was held under the theme of ‘Partnerships for Sustainable Development’, which Campbell stresses are essential for ensuring the resilience of the African consulting engineering sector and strongly aligned with Cesa’s strategies for advancing consulting engineering in South Africa.
He explains that, often, large international companies are awarded projects in African countries, with no direct benefit to local firms. “The idea behind the theme of the conference was to encourage all companies working in Africa to recognise that the only way to develop sustainable infrastructure is through partnerships with local companies.”
A key focus of the conference was, thus, to encourage companies to consider their local counterparts and to draw on their capabilities to assist with infrastructure projects. This theme was explored in presentations that were given in a range of streams, including infrastructure development, capacity building, transformation in the consulting engineering industry and – for the first time – financing for infrastructure.
“The partnership concept just makes good business sense. Not only are the best decisions made with local knowledge, but companies also need to understand that, once they complete a project and leave the area, they need to leave behind a party that is adequately equipped to maintain that infrastructure that has been built.”
The drive to encourage partnerships among the consulting engineering fraternity comes as the South African industry begins to see an uptick in the infrastructure project pipeline. Campbell notes that feedback from Cesa member firms, obtained in the organisation’s biannual capacity economic study for the six months from July to December 2016, indicates that confidence levels in the consulting engineering sector have picked up.
Despite the depressed economic climate in South Africa having negatively impacted on the industry over the past two years, reports from local firms are tentatively hopeful and suggest that the amount of available work is starting to increase.
Looking to the Future
Campbell stresses that the need for resilience and sustainability in the South African consulting engineering environment applies on multiple levels, not only in terms of adapting technically to the influence of technology in the industry, but also to embracing and supporting a new generation of professionals.
He notes that, while there is growth in the number of new engineers entering South Africa’s public sector, these practitioners are often young and inexperienced and face challenges resulting from the applied nature of consulting engineering. As a result, Cesa has made several offers to public-sector clients, such as the Department of Water and Sanitation, to partner these new practitioners with more experienced engineers in member firms who can mentor them and assist in producing competent professionals in South Africa.
Cesa has also been working with Treasury on a national roll-out of training with regard to the new Standard for Infrastructure Procurement and Delivery Management in major cities in South Africa. The training has been well received so far, with rooms filled by patrons from a mix of public service and private-sector built environment professions. The course is not only attendance-based, but requires attendees to complete an examination to ensure that, as professionals, they are well-equipped to apply their knowledge.
“This new standard is one of the most positive steps that has been taken in our procurement environment to ensure the sustainability of industries like consulting engineering and other built environment professions.”
For too long, Campbell stresses, professional services in the engineering and construction sector have been commoditised and the allocation of work in the public sector has been based mostly on the lowest bid offered. With the new procurement regime, however, he points out that price will be considered alongside value for money and transformation in the industry, which provides a much more holistic approach to procurement.
Cesa has also developed a set of initiatives to drive transformation in the consulting engineering sector that highlights the business strength that comes from including a diverse range of viewpoints in a company’s decision-making process.
Moreover, on the back of government’s Preferential Procurement Policy Framework Act (PPPFA), Cesa has seen a number of new, smaller firms joining its membership, in order to take advantage of the need for larger companies to meet PPPFA criteria that require them to subconsult up to 30% of the work to exempt microenterprises and qualifying small enterprises, while assisting in developing new entrants to the consulting engineering business environment. Therefore, Cesa is accordingly adapting its membership database to help member companies identify partners within the organisation and assess their viability for partnership ventures going forward.
In addition, Cesa is also implementing a Cesa-run bursary fund that will provide recipients pursuing a degree in engineering with all the financial, mentorship and social support they need to excel at university, as well as assist them in securing work positions thereafter. Traditionally, Cesa member firms that had the internal capacity to do so, ran these programmes on their own, whereas it is now looking at how it can consolidate these efforts and make it possible for even small firms who lack the internal capacity to do so, to participate in this industry-coordinated effort, Campbell adds.
Cesa’s Business of Consulting Engineering Programme, which pairs bodies of knowledge, such as law, finance and management, related to the consulting engineering industry, with the technical core skill of engineering, will further help to foster and accelerate new practitioners’ management skills and prepare them for leadership and entrepreneurship positions in the industry in a much shorter time.
In addition, Cesa will be initiating a more focused approach to addressing the issues that affect the sustained employment and retention of female consulting engineers through the development of a Cesa Women’s Forum.
“These are the key areas of focus that we believe will streamline our drive towards transformation and sustainability. Resilience, coupled with competence and caution – that is our strategy,” Campbell concludes.