A reputable civil engineer (Pr Eng, MSc Eng, MBL, FSAICE), with some 20 years of public and private sector work experience, attends a tender briefing meeting – dignified and portraying the ultimate professional in dress and demeanour. The Roads Agency Limpopo (RAL) tender briefing starts half an hour late. The two-hour long discussions are shabby. Our consultant stands for the entire duration of the meeting. While RAL scrambled 30 chairs into their atrium, 300 people are in attendance. Some have driven three hours to be there. Among the 300 are engineering professionals and at least one SAICE past president, and shady tenderpreneurs.
The documents, together with the register, must be signed by the client. The 300-strong crowd start to jostle – some looking for the register, others don’t have tender documents, because too few were printed. Chaos ensues, and the scene takes on the spectacle of men ordering beer at the local shebeen on a Friday evening. After a while, the shebeen settles down, and the still thirsty consultants leave. Their distinction and pride stay behind, scattered on the atrium floor somewhere. Only one tenderer will win. It emerges that the tender document is subjective, and therefore open to interpretation, which invites the lowest price and inevitably results in variation, scope creep and wastage. A conservative estimate shows that this entire charade, when over, will cost R10 m – valuable time that could have been used on actual work, rather than hustling and elbowing for work.
In one morning, a public sector client has drained civil engineering of its honour and prestige, reducing the profession to an amateur and uncultured vocation. The public sector in general is making a habit of converting us into vagabonds of our own pedigreed profession. And we, who fall in the top 1% of the country’s brain power, let them. We continue to tolerate their lack of professionalism and their sloppiness.
Are we saying that civil engineers and engineers in general are special and deserve special treatment? While we resist the temptation to blow that trumpet, government is ironically doing it for us – electrical, civil and mechanical engineers are the top three scarce skills in the country, as identified by the Department of Higher Education and Training in 2014, and the Department of Labour earlier. Engineering and its allied disciplines continue to dominate the top 100 list.
It is absurd that government recognises civil engineering as a scarce skill, but has policies and people in place that sanction flippant wastage of these skills on tendering, poor management of professionals, and porous systems and processes in HR, procurement and supply chain management.
Like most engineering challenges, the solution is an integrated one, and we need the profession (SAICE and the other Voluntary Associations, CESA, SAFCEC, CIDB, ECSA, SACPCMP) to drive the outcomes from the bottom up, because government is lethargic. In essence it requires that we start governing ourselves through policy that we instigate in unison – a CIVILUTION.
CESA needs to arise from its slumber and start grading consultants, like the contractors are graded by the CIDB. No consultancy should be awarded a project unless it is registered with CESA, and likewise no contractor should be awarded work unless it is registered with SAFCEC (through the CIDB). I use the word ‘registered’ intentionally. Both SAFCEC and CESA should keep a readily accessible list of registered contractors and consultants on their websites, for the edification of our clients. The rules that govern the ratings should be developed by the relevant organisations, and should encourage equity, equality, job creation and entrepreneurship.
Next, ECSA and the SACPCMP’s clarion call for professional registration needs to find resonance in the orchestra of an industry that comes full circle. As the councils require that we register, so too must all clients disseminating engineering work require that work be done by registered engineering practitioners at appropriate levels. Failing this, tender submissions are to be rejected or disqualified, with full explanation. Without Identification of Engineering Work then, the Engineering Profession Act has as much bite as a puppy dog in the Kruger National Park.
Furthermore, ECSA and the SACPCMP need to continue nurturing their official partnerships with the Voluntary Associations regarding professional registration. In terms of SAICE, for example, the technical leadership and learned society content upon which civil engineering practitioners are adjudicated for professional registration and Continuing Professional Development is at the heart of the purpose of SAICE’s existence. It should therefore be formally recognised and intertwined into ECSA’s registration process. The councils should thus not make a move without enquiring into the peer review and technical discipline outcome of SAICE’s interventions before registering any individual.
If we don’t do this, more malls and churches are going to collapse and more public funds are going to get wasted on Nkandla type exploits. If we don’t do this, we are also allowing this honourable profession to be tainted by obsequious politicians and an ill-informed administration. And most importantly, if we don’t intervene with a revolutionary intervention, we are approving the murder of the many lives we put at risk. And we approve, while garbed in our business suits, attired in ample qualifications and clothed with professional accreditations.