The survival of the construction industry will depend on the willingness and ability of individuals and organisations to adapt to a new way of working, as well government’s commitment to address the threats highlighted by the sector, University of Pretoria (UP) Graduate School of Technology Management project and quality management senior lecturer Dr Giel Bekker tells Engineering News.
Although the industry can make a “significant contribution towards pulling the economy out of dire straits”, it unfortunately depends on private, and more so, public expenditure.
“Being an optimist, I believe that the construction industry will recover faster than we expect, owing to a renewed awareness of its job preservation and creation ability,” he enthuses.
However, Bekker warns that construction companies will need to focus on improving productivity, as the current productivity rate of between 60% and 70% is not sustainable.
He points out that improving productivity can be clustered into complexity, process control and inventory control. Therefore, reviewing and selecting technologies that can address aspects in any of these clusters should be pursued.
For example, in general engineering and design, companies are making good use of building information modelling (BIM) technologies, especially three-dimensional (3D) designs.
However, the adoption of BIM capabilities for construction site management has been slow, with old school approaches of “hard-copy drawings and snag lists under the arm” still prevailing.
“Various online platforms are available to manage material delivery to site and even the on-demand mobilisation of plant and equipment. More than 1 000 construction technology upstart companies were launched in the past two years, focusing on various applications to improve construction management,” Bekker adds.
Further, he tells Engineering News that South Africa will need to adopt a more long-term view in terms of building a sustainable society, and provide selective skills development where it is needed most.
For the construction industry, the revitalisation of technical colleges, specialised artisan training and the value of continuous development should be embedded in the workforce.
“We do not need to reinvent the wheel – there are many tools, techniques and good practices that can be explored, customised and applied in the workplace.”
However, for the industry to thrive, opportunism will need to be dealt with immediately and decisively. This includes the exploitation of localisation and procurement in public projects, construction mafia and corruption during tender award.
Additionally, he emphasises that trade unions and community leaders need to adjust their role from value extraction to value addition for long-term benefit.
“Our labour market is in abundance and very affordable, but lack of skills remains the constraint. This is especially so with regard to welders, boilermakers and specialised artisans, who often need to be sourced from abroad on most projects.”
Thus, the expectation that at least 30% of public work needs to be subcontracted to local communities and stakeholders – of which most are unskilled and come with high expectations and demands – makes construction work in South Africa a near impossibility, says Bekker.
He also highlights some of the sector’s dangers such as construction companies overextending themselves in times of low demand. This often leads to their committing to work that they will not be able to complete within the awarded timeframe, thus setting themselves up for failure.
Unfortunately, this is even more prevalent with emerging contractors as recently observed from a study into cancelled contracts in the healthcare industry, adds Bekker.
Moreover, he emphasises that there is a need for widespread industry collaboration to improve the sector.
“Learning from the Construction Industry Institute, there is room for companies and organisations to bury the competitive hatchet and engage in common challenges and best practices. This could include focused research projects and drafting case studies on completed projects for future learning.”
In essence, there is a need to free up the construction industry, challenge the regulatory and ideological constraints, as well as critically ask what is really meant by transformation in the industry, concludes Bekker.