Use of foreign professionals is hampering ACEN’s prospects

Akindayomi

Charles Akinyele Akindayomi FNSE is a mechanical engineer and businessman. He is the CEO of CA Consultants Ltd, a firm of independent mechanical, electrical and piping consulting engineers. He is also the current president of the Association for consulting Engineering in Nigeria (ACEN). In this interview with Eseoghene Laba, he talks about the challenges of achieving ACEN’s mandate, the quality of engineering graduates in Nigeria and the hope the Executive Order 5 recently signed by President Muhammadu Buhari gives to engineers.

What is ACENs Mandate?
The mandate of ACEN is to protect the engineering profession in Nigeria and majority of the engineers in ACEN all belong to the constructing industry where we deal with buildings and infrastructures which can range from dams, power, transportation, etc. So our mandate is to protect them to make sure their organization is viable and they can get jobs from government, private industries and also to enhance the image of consulting engineering. So that whenever people want to find out anything about consulting, we should be the voice that they come to.

What are the challenges faced by ACEN in the quest to achieving its mandate?
We have first numerous challenges over the years; one of such challenges would be lack of significant Jobs from government. Engineers in Nigeria do not get jobs from government, they give the jobs to foreigners and this is one of the biggest challenges we have been facing. Also if we even get jobs from either government or private clients getting paid our fees becomes a struggle.

Most private sector clients still insists on using the outdated federal government scale of fees that was published in 1996, which is now obsolete rather than the Current hourly rates recommended by the council for the regulation of engineering in Nigeria (COREN) to be charged for various cadre engineering personnel, because it saves them more money. And this is a big challenge for our own industry because there are so many things we use our fees for, asides salary we train people, take care of their welfare etc. so if we get low fees, it starts affecting us.

It also affects our numbers; the number of consulting Engineers in the country are very few and we expected that at this stage we should have had quite a number of consulting firms in the country, employing 200 or 300 people, the highest number you would see a consulting firm employing is always less than 100 personnel which includes engineers and non engineers.

We also face unfavorable government procurement policies especially in states. Some states do not use engineers for consulting they just get contractors who would do the Job as a donkey, which is not favorable to the citizen because we are giving tax payer’s money to contractors who will inflate the contract since there are no third parties looking into what they are doing and how they are doing it, which means you might not get the value of what you paid for. So we are trying to see how we can infiltrate into state government and convince them to start investing in independent consulting firms to help them get their money’s worth.

The Nigerian government has the habit of going for foreign firms instead of looking within. We are not saying everything the foreigners can do, we can do it, but engineering is engineering. If you are trying to use foreigners for some of the jobs Nigerian engineers cannot do, then make sure you put Nigerians along with them so they can work together and learn. This is the only way we can improve.

How has the prioritizing of foreign engineers robbed off on the quality of engineers in Nigeria?
Employing foreign engineers to do jobs in Nigeria is not giving Nigerian engineers the chance to develop in their fields. Graduate engineers only have basic knowledge of engineering and science, they have to start working to learn the skills of production using the knowledge they learnt while in school. So, if they do not get that opportunity, they would never be anything. If we are not careful this country might become the case of India many Years ago when you have PHD holders sweeping the streets because they want to survive. We can just have engineers roaming around doing different sort of jobs but not using it to the benefits of the country, it robs us off the opportunity to have technical people who can actually do this engineering jobs. For instance; technologist and craftsmen are becoming obsolete because the jobs are not there. It is a disservice to us if we are not given these jobs to build our nation. When you bring in foreigners, they work for a short period of time and when the job is done they leave and they go with all the expertise and experience. All the knowledge that Nigerian engineers could have gained is not gained. So, it robs us of that knowledge and opportunity to build our skills. It greatly affects the quality of engineers in Nigeria.

I am not saying they should give jobs to Nigerians even if we do not have the knowledge about it, but that they should also engage Nigerian engineers in some of these jobs. They should make the foreign engineering companies liaise with Nigeria consulting firms, during this process, the knowledge would rub off on the Nigerian engineers. Do not forget that most Nigerian engineers today started off by working with foreign engineering consulting firms. In those days there were all British people here, who had engineering firms and we were working underneath them, we learnt the trade, then we opened our own companies. The same way government should do when it comes to big jobs that we do not have the expertise for. Then we would be able to come together with those foreigners, have a good agreement with them and then do the work. Nigeria would benefit at the end of the day, because when the foreigners leave the knowledge is still resident with the Nigerians and they too can use it for other projects.

What is your assessment of Engineer’s contribution to the national Economy?
Engineers play a very vital role in the economy because when you look around you, everything you see involves engineering, the clothing, the buildings, medical equipments, etc. there is engineering involved. So when you talk about Nigeria engineers we have expertise in construction, telecoms, oil and gas, etc and if you look at all these industries they are engineering based. So, we contribute tremendously to the GDP of the country because everything engineers do is very tangible.

We produce services and products so that at the end of the day, you can actually point to what we have done. The moment you start cutting engineering from the economy, it would not grow and the country would be underdeveloped. The development of this nation is in the hands of engineers which is why we want to ensure that we the citizens are used, so we can be able to best identify what is wrong, what is lacking and put in our best. We should be given the chance to prove ourselves because when we start getting more jobs even if we are not experienced we start learning new things and improving. Most of the money given to foreigners is taken away and we never get the opportunity of using to develop our nation.

There are so many Engineers moving to other sectors, what is your take on that?
Everything is based on supply and demand, if a student goes to the university to study engineering for the love of it and graduates, after the mandatory one year service they start job hunting. And because we are all human beings who have self esteem, when you do not see the kind of job you want because there are not enough consulting engineering firms, no industries and the existing ones are full. They get desperate and disillusioned so they start looking for any other sector where they can put their analytical skills to good use, which is why they start going to other sectors like banking, media, etc. I can tell you that their first point of call if they had a chance would be to do what they studied, but since the economy is not big enough to accommodate them, they start looking for other options.

What we can do is to keep hitting on government to give our members jobs, so that they can also employ more engineering graduates roaming in the streets and those switching to other fields. And to also expand the economy based on the work they are doing. Because it is really the government’s responsibility to create the avenue for Jobs and industries to be created in this country, so that all the technical skills are taken care of. And any nation that does not use its technical skills would not go anywhere and that is going to be a problem.

President Muhammadu Buhari recently signed executive order 5; giving preferential treatment to Nigerians for procurement in science and technology sector, what do you make of the policy and how will it address some of these challenges faced by Nigerian engineers?
We have been clamoring for this because the order says Nigerians must be considered first in any of these works that needs to be carried out. And it also states that if they cannot get Nigerians who are capable of doing the entire work, they can still get foreigners to collaborate with local firms. And this is similar to what you have in the Nigeria content law in the oil and gas industry, which says they must have a Nigerian content in whatever they are doing. So if you say you want to buy anything, you need to look for local suppliers who also supply those things instead of going outside for it. It has been successful in the oil and gas, so we are telling them to extend this law into the construction industry because it is the biggest and employs more people.

There have been promises but now with this order, before any project is taken out, the ministries, departments and agencies (MDA) will look at the content and make sure there are Nigerian contents. We welcome it but government should take it further and make it a law because when it becomes a law if someone faults it you can take them to court. At the moment it is just an instruction within the executive branch, it is not a mandatory thing but it is a welcome start. The document has not been released to the open yet so we do not know what exactly is stated to make sure the MDA’s actually carry out this instruction.

As the president of ACEN, what are your plans to galvanize Nigerian engineers to leverage on the executive order and employ more indigenous engineers?
Now that there is an order for Nigeria engineers to be considered first, my role is to negotiate with this MDA’s, to make sure they follow that order. They should select engineers from our list of registered engineers because they have been tested and trusted. We do not want them to start selecting engineers who are not registered and tested. Because before you can join our association you would be tested and also recommended to COREN for them also register your firm, those with us have the capabilities and we would be using this to negotiate with them. This is why we need more consulting engineers to register because if we have a breakthrough with the MDA’s and they begin to use from our data base, they might be left out.

What are your thoughts on the engineering graduates of Nigerian universities, do they measure up to the industry standards; if not, what plan does ACEN to bring them up to speed?
Before graduates can get any experience, they need to be employed. Everybody is complaining that the Nigerian graduates are far below par but recently COREN who is responsible for the curriculum of engineering in universities has upgraded their curriculum and it has been benchmarked to other universities outside Nigeria and it matches up to standard. It is now up to Nigerian universities to train the lecturers to be up to par with the new curriculum and implement it. If they do these the quality of engineers coming out will be better.

When we employ engineering graduates, it takes us almost a year to train them because they did not learn the rigors of engineering in school. So, we have to start teaching them and giving them the needed experience in engineering. During that 12 months we are just spending money without getting anything back in return. The tutelage period should not be more than 3 or 4 months, if the graduates are up to the necessary standard. Hopefully with this revised curriculum we will start having upgraded quality of graduates from the university.

Are there other pressing challenges facing the engineering profession in Nigeria and how do you think they can be solved?
The country has to go through the system of industrialization and stop importation; people should start manufacturing things here no matter how small. Government introduced Peugeot automobile Nigeria (PAN) some years ago to assemble cars, if that has been sustained, a lot of technicians would have learnt so many things there. We cannot continue to import everything we need else we would never grow.

For instance; if government bans toothpick and we start production in Nigeria, at first it might be on the high side but in no time there would be competition in toothpick production and the price would reduce. People would start learning the technology of toothpick production and more engineers and technicians would be employed. This would encourage the Nigerian engineers and stop them from going to other fields that they have to business being in. Government should also set up these industries in partnership with investors using the public private partnership (PPP) initiative.

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