I was privileged to be a panelist for the discussion “Getting What You Pay for from Design through Construction,” which was organized by fellow panelist Anthony Eith, Vice President Civil & Environmental Consultants, Inc. Other panelists included Dr. George Koerner, Director Geosynthetic Institute Tim Rafter, Vice President of Business Development, Atlantic Lining Company, Inc., and Sam Allen, Vice President, TRI Geosynthetic Services.
With such a high-powered line up, it was sometimes hard to get a word in!
Also contributing significantly to the fast pace of this panel discussion was the broad ranging content and extensive audience participation. The panel discussion ran approximately 20 minutes over our allotted 60-minute timeframe, and it appeared no one left – in fact, others coming for the next presentation joined in.
Joanna Toepfer, the moderator of the panel discussion (and my wife of nearly 16 years) asked the question: “What is the 800-pound Gorilla sitting in the room that no one in the industry wants to discuss, but needs to discuss?”
Normally, I am prepared for just about any question. However, Joanna decided to start with me on this one. I sat there like a deer in the headlights – clearly an indicator to the audience that Joanna starting with me on this question was not rehearsed!
My mind started processing so many things, just like the old paper or plastic bag TV commercial. Panelists were saying things like “Wake up Glen.” Finally, I blurted out “Design – I think a lot goes back to the project design.”
Sam Allen disagreed with me and bluntly stated that commoditization of services within the industry, particularly the Construction Quality Assurance (CQA) service component is the 800 pound Gorilla. All of the panelists, including myself, agreed with Sam on this analogy. Well done, Sam! It was one of the hundreds of thoughts that crossed through my mind, but I think it worked out better that someone representing a different industry component than CQA actually stated this fact.
Commoditization of the CQA service has been going on for years. Panelists either spoke directly or alluded to the same observations I have seen throughout my career in this industry. When I started in the industry in 1990, it was not uncommon to have CQA technicians present for each activity being performed by the installation contractor. And, in cases where we were spread thin, the installer was required to give notice, such that the CQA firm could adjust their staffing. We had one QA technician per non-destructive test apparatus, while others covered deployment, seaming, repairs, etc.
By the time I started my own firm in 2003, it was not uncommon for me to be the only technician on a job. If there was a second, they were often inexperienced people thrown into the field to help out.
What was not addressed by the panel is: Where does commoditization start? To me, it seems that it starts with the owner. Over the years, I’ve heard many engineers state that they were being pushed by the owners to not only lower their costs, but to lower their standards to the point that they are almost “uncomfortable with stamping/certifying the project.” How can owners continue to push engineers to the point that they are uncomfortable? And why do these engineers get in this position?
But, owners are not the only problem. Engineers, especially certification engineers, tend to dismiss the value of the field technician. Since we are on the topic of primates, I’ll share a quote from the past, spoken by a reputable engineer highly educated in the field of geosynthetics to a QA team composed of perhaps the best resources I’ve ever seen on one team: “I could replace you with a bunch of monkeys.”
I’m not even sure why the engineer lined all of us up for a pep talk. But this pep talk ended up showing the engineer’s preconceived value of the field technician. It doesn’t matter that most of had either an associates or baccalaureate degree and were N.I.C.E.T. level III certified in geosynthetics and/or clay liners; no one should be treated like that regardless of education. The statement truly showed the engineer’s ignorance of the value of the QA technician role. And, unfortunately, my personal belief is that this mentality is common across the engineering field.
I have long stated that the field technician is the “eyes and ears” of the certifying engineer and ultimately the owner. Far too often, engineers cut off their ears and are walking around blind because they do not fully utilize the value the technician brings. Of course, when owners are asking for QA rates of $35/hour, all inclusive — meaning regular time, overtime, vehicle, motel, and per diem are included in this rate — you understand why the position may be commoditized. One thing I have seen is that reputable engineer firms say “no” to these jobs.
When asked by an audience member, “Where should an owner put his money?” the panel unanimously stated “Quality Assurance.”
IN OTHER NEWS
Other highlights of the panel discussion include:
- Dr. Koerner pointing out that stones, rocks, and wrinkles continue to be a universal problem throughout the industry even though much literature is available on the danger they pose;
- Tim Rafter showed slides of items commonly missed by engineers putting together an installation bid, such as fences and other structures; these impact the ability of the installation crew, sometimes resulting in substantial cost increases;
- Dr. Koerner pointing out through audience participation that geosynthetics questions are noticeably absent on civil engineering professional engineering exams!
I encourage your thoughts about the 800-pound gorilla! Now that it has been identified, what can we do to contain it and make it disappear before it harms the future of our industry?