Bleak Future

A Bleak Future for Civil Engineering

We are facing a potential disaster in the coming years. How can we as a developing country afford to have young, and not so young and experienced engineers, made redundant because government cannot get its "ducks in a row"? With 50 years of experience in the consulting industry in many parts of the world, which has given me great satisfaction, it saddens me that this experience is being denied to many young and enthusiastic new entrants.

The fee scales that were determined by the Public Works Department on behalf of government (and which were a good basis for payment and negotiation) have fallen by the wayside (courtesy, I believe, of the competition commission) and government now even has the nerve to expect discounts on the very same fees. The public procurement system now judges everything on price. Bear in mind that a recent judicial ruling now makes it effectively illegal to consider the technical merits of a submission. The expertise that firms have built up over the years in most cases will now be of very little, if any, value in the process. What are the implications?

A recent proposal with which I was involved used the two-envelope system where the technical merit of the proposal is evaluated first. The proposals are supposedly ranked solely on their technical merit and innovative ideas put forward. However, the ranking of the technical proposals then falls away in its entirety as the final evaluation is based solely on the price offered (90 points out of 100 for price, and the remaining 10 for BEE compliance.) There is no weighting for the technical excellence offered. It is worth remembering that organisations such as the World Bank, the EU, the African Development Bank and other development organisations place a far greater weight on the technical skills offered. Consulting firms survive on their technical skills and innovation, and to deny them the right to compete on this basis will destroy the industry. The whole system needs to be rethought, and organisations like the CIDB (Construction Industry Development Board) need to do their homework. Unlike a construction tender, the offers for a design appointment in most cases lack a full definition of the problem and the request for proposals must recognise and weight the response. The price differentials between competing bids are generally small in relation to the project cost.

There is now also the further risk that the Client, having selected the winner on price, is going to suggest to the low bidder that he uses the best technical solution identified in the technical appraisals, but not offered, by the winner. It has happened and I submit that this is corrupt, does not conform to the intentions of the process laid down by the CIDB and is also a violation of the intellectual property rights of the firm that offered the proposal. This contains more than the seeds of destruction of the consulting firms in this country, and particularly of the small to medium size firms. We will see either the demise of many firms or more rapid amalgamation followed by a major increase in the bid prices for projects. The larger firms with their broader base, and possibly more international work, are more able to carry the costs of tendering. There also are major implications in the scenario for providing the sound training that the graduates now emerging will require. It may have serious consequences for the BEE practices that are emerging, and will not be able to build the skills base that they would have to have.

A brief comment about the performance of Prof Kader Asmal during his tenure as the Minister of Water Affairs is merited at this point. His success was in large measure due to the excellent team of engineers at his disposal, who were able to make things happen. The latest SAICE score card (see May 2011 Civil Engineering magazine) shows the extent to which this critical department has been stripped of its expertise, and we now see the department headed not by an engineer, but by a human resources or some other nontechnical person. Can we sustain this?

Many may consider this vision of the future unduly pessimistic, but I do not believe that it is that far-fetched. One of the spin-offs of the inefficient way in which projects are procured is already the shortage of jobs for civil engineers and the resultant redundancy. Add to this the fact that over the past five to seven years the intake of students to civil engineering at university has increased sharply and we are now facing the unbelievable prospect of being able to provide only a portion of the necessary jobs to train these young and eager graduates. Watch the graduate unemployment rise faster over the next three years. Add to this the redundancy or retirement of the skilled engineers who would have to train the youngsters and the outlook is grim. The SAICE score card provides stark evidence of the need for engineers to improve the quality of life of the less fortunate people of this country.

What concerns me is that I see nothing being done by the organisations that set the rules (the CIDB) and our professional organisation (ECSA), and only the limited efforts of the SAICE. Is it not time that these defects are dealt with vigorously and engineers restored to their rightful place where they can get on with the job of developing and building the country? We have done it before and can do it again, provided there is no more delay.

Robert Blyth Consultant: HHO Africa (semi-retired)
021 671 8326 email:

First published in May 2011 Civil Engineering magazine

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