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‘Enforcing local content in infrastructure will boost engineers’capacity’

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Kunle Adebajo


MR. KUNLE ADEBAJO is a former president, Nigerian Institution of Structural Engineers (NiStructE). He spoke to VICTOR GBONEGUN on ways to handle breach of contract in the COVID-19 pandemic, controversy sorrounding scale of fees in the industry and why indigenous professionals are not given more attention in projects.

Given the current global economic climate that makes it increasingly difficult for employers to fund projects, many companies may suspend or terminate their relationship. How do contracting parties handle circumstances arising from breach of contracts?
In breach of contract, there will definitely be a dispute because a person has either woefully or negligently failed to do their part. But in this instance, it is clear that CoVID-19 is a major cause globally, therefore to a large extent, it could well be classified as ‘force majeure’, which in a layman’s term stands for an Act of God. 
 
In a situation, where that is the case, parties to the contract have to agree on what is realistic and needs to be renegotiated. However, it’s still not totally over. In fact, we are yet to see the full implication or where daylight would be at the end of this matter. It’s quite a complex matter, which needs to be carefully handled. There will be no single solution; each party needs to look at it, as it relates to their own project. 
 
Despite knowing what the cause is, the implications remain the same. Project financing was done based on budget, which has gone up. There maybe lasting implications for a client who is funding a project with a fixed time frame. You can imagine somebody who is funding a stadium or the Africa Games and now those games don’t take place or the project definitely will not be able to meet that time frame, then there is problem. Some significant losses may occur, and parties may eventually disappear. The consolation is that the circumstance is not just in construction industry, but everywhere. 

It is public knowledge that some professional bodies have failed to replace the 1996 Federal Government’s Scale of Fees with the new Cost and Time-Based Remuneration (CTR), for professional services. What do you think is the implication for the construction industry?
The biggest problem of all is even getting payments at all. Most professional bodies will tell you how difficult it was and part of the reasons is that people no longer value services, they prefer goods. Definitely, the 1996 professional fees scale having being so long and so much time gone by, needs to be replaced. However, there are methods through which that can be done, by updating, and upgrading it. What’s key is that let the client even pay appropriate fees. If fees are not paid, then it has very damaging effects on the construction industry.

TR seems to be the favoured one now because it is based on actual time spent rather than value of the work. That is in order, but there is also the problem of actually quantifying that time because some clients can be contentious on the issue of hours spent.
 
There is another problem of fees competition as it is not unusual for some consultants to engage in some forms of direct or indirect fees competition. While some will say it is good, others will say it drives down the cost based on the fact that one or two players in the industry are desperate to get jobs.  Clients need to pay professionals and if you are giving good service, there is a likelihood that clients will value that good service. 

The implication of professionals not getting the right fees is that, you might have experienced people leaving the industry while you might not have bright professionals, right training, the experience and the growth that is needed. The industry may literally fall apart in terms of standard.

Participation of indigenous engineers in the railway project is still at lower ebb, what do you think is responsible for this and how do we improve on the involvement of indigenous engineers?
Rail is a kind of large infrastructure that is capital-intensive, and usually those who have the funds dictate the pace. If the Chinese are willing to bring in the money, I can’t blame the government for accepting it with some form of Public Private Partnership (PPP) whereby at least government ends up benefiting.

Truly, government can’t handle all the infrastructure development that is required in the country. We have very competent engineers; they just need to be given the chance. The main point is, when coming up with those PPPs, it is important to build into it certain legislations and requirements for the local content. 
 
Once that happens, it should be a win-win situation and it needs to be properly enforced. Enforcing local content in infrastructure will boost technical capacity of engineers.

Once every developer or project financier is aware of the regulation, they must make sure that there is certain amount of Nigeria content in contracts. If that happens, Nigerian engineers will now build their experience, exposure and skills, and it ends up having very positive effects on the industry and economy. You will have young engineers who are gaining experience in the country and at a point in time, you will actually have close to self-sufficiency in terms of technical capabilities in engineering.

Despite the fact that Nigerian Society of Engineers (NSE), Association of Consulting Engineers of Nigeria (ACEN) and other engineering bodies have been in existence for over thirty years, some of the challenges leading to their formation like non-recognition by the government have remained. What other challenges are the profession facing and how can we tackle them?
I think the biggest problem Nigerian engineers are facing is the poor economic climate. You see, once there is work and there are things to do, the industry grows and you won’t have time to complain because there are things to do. But, in an environment where you have very well trained practitioners who don’t have anything to do, there will be problem. When Nigerian engineers are engaged in what they have been trained to do, it will be a catalyst for growth within the institutions themselves. There are problems but they are all hinged on the welfare of the members, the exposure and opportunities that are available.

With the dwindling resources to fund infrastructure, Nigeria is still experiencing frequent collapse of public projects. What can we do to surmount the problem?
Dwindling resources usually lead to trying to cut corners, or trying to lower standards. I will say without apologies whatsoever that most of the problems of collapses and failures of project have been linked to non-usage of professionals. 
 
If structural engineers and professionals are not involved in a project, the reality of it is that you are not likely to get a sound and safe structure and you may end up with building collapse or collapse of structures. In-spite of dwindling resource, there are some things that must not be sacrificed; one of them is to build properly designed, properly supervised structure by competent and professional engineers.

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Employers of graduate of engineering from the universities and polytechnics have consistently complained about a mismatch in skills and shortfall incapacity to really practice as young professionals. Why does this persist?
Well, that is very much my interest and passion, it involves training of the youths and making sure that they’re ready for the challenges of tomorrow as well as ensure that the industry has a future. One of the things we have noticed is the wide gap between what is been taught in the universities and in the reality what actually happens in the industry. Many of the lecturers are very much more focused on their ivory tower, but I think it is changing. Those in charge of university’s curriculum are realizing that the skills required to be successful today are quite different from what they were in about 25 years ago. Now you need a lot of soft skills, interpersonal skills, and entrepreneurship and communication skills. Things that are more important include, the background technical knowledge and less about been able to cram to pass exams. But much about being able to solve challenges, having innovative mind, and think outside the box.

The gap between the university and the industry needs to be closed and the best way for that is to have experience practitioners involved in training sessions with the students before they graduate so that they will be properly aligned to what will happen when they come out of the university.
In addition, Industrial Training (IT) sessions will help them to be well equipped with what they are going to face in the industry. When they go back to the university from IT sessions, what they have learnt will also impact on the lecturers and they will then, be changing right direction.
Despite many books you will be reading online or off-line, you can’t be a master chief, if you don’t go to the kitchen. You really need to get your hands dirty in the kitchen. What it does is that, it teaches you what you should do and what you shouldn’t. Now I can go to a construction site and within few minutes, detect what is likely to be wrong but you can’t read that in a book, it comes from experience.

What is your advice to young people planning to take up career in engineering?
They should consider coming into the industry, it’s a very rewarding and fulfilling profession. It requires a lot of hard work right from students’ days, you have to continuously improve your knowledge and experience and strictly need to do the right things.To some extent, you need to have a reasonable good head for mathematics and science subjects. It’s not that you can’t do without some of them, but Mathematics and Science are important. You also need communication, observation skills, interpersonal skills which can be developed through hard work and determination.
Passion also plays a role mostly in being able to project yourself to the very top because everything is now competitive.  

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COVID-19Kunle Adebajo
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