Civil Designer Showcase

Make No Prior Assumptions

Randall Dirks arrived in Umtata on a Monday 10 years ago, having taken the weekend off after finishing his final university exam on the preceding Friday. Like most people, he thought he would do a year or two and then head rightfully back to the big city lights.

But Randall Dirks found out that it doesn't work like that in Umtata - in fact, in Umtata, everything works differently. "Numerous projects are fast tracked and clients often want projects to be out to tender as soon as possible while still complying with all the environment and relevant design criteria," says Randall Dirks, who laughs and smiles a lot.

"Take a bridge; here the span is determined by what will likely have to go through underneath. The client does not want to have trees knocking against the columns during flooding. He does not want to have to come back to remove trees or other objects that are damming the river. So we make the bridge as big as possible as there is often no budget to do any maintenance. In addition, some clients want to minimise maintenance, so care has to be taken in the design stage to achieve these requirements."

"The client in virtually all cases at the Umtata branch of HHO Africa Infrastructure Engineers, is National or Provincial Government in the form of various departments or Local and District Municipalities. We have very little dealings with private sector clients."

Training in South Africa is vital to raising living standards and alleviating poverty. "Government has insisted that we train people on all our jobs; we do this gladly. The problem is that, after the contract is finished, there are a few hundred people who have acquired skills, but there is minimal work left to be done in that community."

"What we would like the client to do is to give these trained people a contract to do the maintenance on these projects once they are finished. After all, they worked on them and acquired their skills there. The client demands that we spend 12% of the budget on creating employment for the local communities. On some jobs we have spent approximately R16m on employment over a two-year contract period. It would be ideal if these people were given contracts to maintain the work, they even live along roads and are always close to the work site," he says with an enthusiastic smile.

Professional Engineering is becoming more than engineering. "Whatever you've learnt at varsity is gone, it's just the tip of the iceberg," he says laughing uproariously. "The way I see it," he says becoming serious again, "is that engineers are being taught the hard skills, how to design, but nowadays you need a lot of soft skills, communications, etc."

"No one seems to understand the enormous power the community has, community liaison is huge. If they don't like something and they start toyi-toying, the contractor leaves until the situation has been resolved. These bills are huge; just two or three days can easily run into hundreds of thousands, and the client won't pay for that."
  What sort of ratio between hard and soft skills is required today for an engineer to be able to successfully earn a living? "It's about equal. Because not only do you need to communicate with communities, you have to be able to negotiate effectively with your client, you need financial skills to administer a project, and of course project management skills to manage the whole job."

The financial side is very tricky. "The difference between the contract period and the accounting period leads to some difficult situations. Fluctuating budgets on the client side also causes problems. Cost overruns are just a complete no-no."

How does he survive in this difficult environment? "I never assume anything!" the reply is instant. "Don't assume the contractor is experienced and knows what he is doing. It is incumbent on us as consultants to make sure the job is completed properly," he says with a wry smile.

"It's never boring in Umtata. My experience here - the same as anyone else - is fast-tracked. There is no specialization. I prefer water projects, but I do roads, storm water; whatever has to be done. It is a situation of constant and intense learning and on-the-job-training."

"I came here as a junior engineer, happy that I had a job and determined to succeed. Today there is a shortage of good engineers and technicians. Every year we visit schools, and invite learners here to promote the profession. Last year we had a group of kids here, and one of the female learners wanted to know what they could earn. My colleague, who was doing the presentation tried to avoid a direct answer, but she was insistent. When she heard that the salary was between R5 000 and R6 000, she, and the others, were aghast. She said, 'If I have to do this kind of work for that sort of money, I am simply not interested."

The company - and naturally the Umtata office - is a beta tester for the Roads module of Civil Designer. "That is a great programme," says Randall. "I am not yet an expert in the Water module, but I am working hard at exploring all the features and options of the software."

There is a wealth of experience to draw on in the HHO Africa company. "There's probably in excess of 50 years of local knowledge here. We all support each other. I don't speak Xhosa, but the staff are all supportive." Despite all that, the working environment remains challenging. "Here, if you get called to site, you have to drive 200km on difficult roads. But let me say, if you are a young engineer looking for experience, this is the place to be," he says enthusiastically.

Paul Chambers, a successful business executive once told a group of students, "Life at university, with its intellectual and inconclusive discussions at a postgraduate level, is, on the whole, a bad training for the real world. Only men of very strong character surmount this handicap." Randall Dirks has not only conquered that, he has turned it to his advantage.

image Randall Dirks qualified at Pentech in Cape Town in 1989. He worked for a few years before going to UCT to get his degree. He received his Professional Engineering certificate in 1998. Randall approached the bank for a study loan before going to university. "This was at the time when the economy was depressed and our industry was really in the doldrums. The bank said I was high-risk as there was doubt that I would get a job after qualifying. That is the only time I have ever been declared high-risk by a bank," he says with a chuckle. Randall manages the Umtata office as well as being a director of the company.

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