OPINION: Urgent action needed to tackle construction industry crisis

22 May 2019 | Web Article Number: ME201914641

OPINION: Urgent action needed to tackle construction industry crisis

LET’S not be fooled by political rhetoric. Regardless of party politics, ‘Rome is burning’, and desperate intervention is required across the board (both from the public and private sector as well as civic society at large) to rescue the industry and place it back in its rightful place as the leading catalyst to economic and social development in South Africa.

South African built environment professionals and contractors have a reputation around the world at being at the cutting edge of technological advancement with a strong work ethic. We have a reputation of getting things done. Historically our professionals and contractors have proven time and time again their capabilities and capacity to service and grow the country and are sort after in many countries across the world. The achievements of the 2010 world cup are but a fraction of the capabilities and capacity that this industry can make to the country.

There is a myth being branded around the country over recent years that there are insufficient built environment professionals with the required skills and expertise to service our infrastructure needs. This assumption is unacceptable.

The use of engineers and other professionals from other countries under the guise of a lack of local skills and expertise is extremely disappointing and disturbing and an issue that the industry has raised on various occasions with Government.

In fact, many professional practices and contracting companies have progressively been shedding staff and other resources over recent years due to the current state of the industry and extremely low growth prospects over the short to medium term.

There has been sufficient evidence of this in the media with some prominently large construction companies going into business rescue and even liquidation.

What you all don’t read about are all the non-listed companies experiencing the same difficulties. It has almost become a daily occurrence in the industry. Any loss in vital skills and experience associated with the demise of these companies only erodes the capacity and capabilities of the industry when the economy does eventually start to turn around. According to a recent published piece, the industry is going through its most difficult time in over 25 years.

Coupled with this, the industry is reeling from the disruptions caused to construction contracts across the country by business forums with various conflicting agendas.

While some of these business forums operate with integrity, bringing real valuable solutions to radical economic transformation, most of them are merely opportunists with no intention other than selfish economic gain with no value add.

A recent publication that I read indicated at approximately R35 billion worth of projects were being affected in some way or another. And these were only the ones that were reported. This figure is expected to be far higher than this in real terms.

Do business forums have a place in the radical economic transformation of South Africa and especially the built environment industry? The answer to that is yes. Business forums are born out of a place of justifiable frustration at a lack of social and economic transformation, empty promises and conflicting and unclear policy, legislation and regulations.

It is our view that their role needs to be formalised in conjunction with Government, the private sector and industry related stakeholders. The status quo is utterly unsustainable and is crippling service delivery. One cannot simply ignore business forums and expect the problem to go away.

In addition to these challenges, the barriers to entry for new businesses and for those existing smaller businesses (EME / QSEs) to grow is unsustainable. The complexity and cost of doing business in South Africa, and especially in the built environment space for small to medium size businesses, is unsustainable with conflicting and unnecessary regulations, registrations and compliance issues.

Our technical director often jokes that if he is required to obtain any more qualifications to practice as a result of any new legislation, we will need to reinforce the wall in his office, as the weight of all his framed certificates is starting to compromise the structural integrity of the wall.

He has been a practicing professional for more than 20 years, and tells us that when he was a young engineer, his mentors only had two certificates on their wall. Their degree and their professional registration. He is currently applying for his third professional registration to comply with current legislation that will confirm what he has already being doing for the last 20 years.

And this is just one small example of where red tape is killing our industry. The industry is riddled with inefficiencies.

This red tape also impacts on the ability of senior engineers to carry out vital training and mentoring to grow and develop young engineers. It takes at least 10 years to produce a competent professional engineer (and even that is an impressively short time).

There are no shortcuts here. No technology can speed up this process regardless of what some futurists punt. This is a function of sound education, on the job training and a very high level of mentorship. There is nothing wrong with the quality of our tertiary institutions or what is being taught. First principals are first principals.

This is a similar process for contractors. The inputs required to produce a competent contractor are also a function of education, experience and a high degree of mentorship.

As an industry and as a country, we have taken our eye off the ball and allowed ourselves to be distracted and tied down by peripheral ideologies and concepts at the expense of real inclusive growth.

I recall a few years ago taking on between eight and 10 graduates to complete in-service training. As it stands in the last two years, I am unable to even take on two graduates.

To quote another oft-used phrase, “it is time to go back to the basics”. Yes, this is true, but in terms of the built environment space, I say let the professionals lead the way.

Does the built environment have a significant role to play in developing South Africa and taking us forward? Yes, very much so.

Is there a hope and future for the built environment in leading this country into the future? Yes, very much so.

So, my plea to Government, corporate South Africa, academia and civic society at large, is, don’t forget us in your strategic planning, policy making and implementation. We should be represented at every decision-making level. We are here to serve society in the very nature of our work and cannot be ignored.

• Vino Govender is Managing Director of LA Consulting Engineers

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