Intolerable Acts

By June 29, 2017Uncategorized

There comes a point in time where the burden of existing circumstances outweighs the comfort of current positions and action is required.

Fifty-six wealthy and highly educated men were hand-selected to join forces, create a unified voice and deliver a message of change ultimately heard around the world. This fledging group we now know as the First Continental Congress. Never in the history of the colonies had they worked as a unified body but they knew they had to unite in order to stop the tyranny of King George III.

With the proclamation of his “Intolerable Acts,” King George publicly declared, “The die is now cast. The Colonies must either submit or triumph.” The colonists were not going to surrender their future easily; the commerce of the colonies and livelihood of the people were at stake so they solemnly entered an epic battle of Tyranny vs. Independence.

Likewise in our industry, there are times when the relationship between the engineer and technician seems to be governed by a tyrannical perspective.

This perception was drilled home in my recent correspondence with a world-renowned geosynthetics engineer. In response to my suggestion that there should be multiple levels of certification for geosynthetics technicians similar to what NICET offered in the mid-1990’s, I was told:

“We have been down this path before and think that it dilutes our message and usurps the authority and responsibility of the PE. We view the technician post as a front-line, (entry level) position. They monitor, inspect and record at the site during construction and are basically the owner’s representative in the field. Unfortunately, they are also transient, remaining in the job only between 2 and 10 years. Please do not get me wrong, they are a key part of the “Organizational Structure” outlined by Daniel and Koerner, “Waste Containment Facilities”, 2007. However, they are part of a larger system.”

I wholeheartedly agree with much of this position, including: the technician is the “front-line,” the “owner’s representative,” a “key part of the organizational structure.” However, there are portions that I find tyrannical and outright absurd.

I have never heard of a military general being concerned that his front line might become so “qualified” that they would threaten his position, and then carry that notion so far as to work against increasing the qualifications of his troops.

That concept is laughable, just as much as the viewpoint that the technicians might “usurp” the engineer if we invest too much in them.

Can you imagine walking up to a four-star general and telling him if we keep training his army they might take his job? I am fairly certain the glare emanating from his eyes would be staggering, and I will not even hazard a guess at what he might say.

This type of fear mongering causes us to operate from a position of weakness rather than power.

Every general worth having wants the best front line possible. I believe that our engineers and site owners also want a well-qualified front line.

Great generals also understand that the boots in the field have a very different job than the leadership planning the attacks and allocating resources. They realize that having a successful campaign hinges on understanding the interworking of the field and listening to those boots on the ground.

To be clear: a properly trained and educated technician should always defer certain decisions to the PE.

The responsibility of the technician is to recognize these problems and point them out to the engineer who usually is not on site, such that the certifying engineer can render an educated decision. All too often that doesn’t happen, for numerous reasons.

The aforementioned industry leader was correct, in that technicians often keep their jobs for 2-10 years.

In fact, this is true of U.S. workers in general. As shared recently by Forbes, a study by Glassdoor analyzed 5,000 job transitions and found that the average person changed jobs every 15 months:

“They switched jobs for two key reasons: insufficient career-advancement opportunities and dissatisfaction with an employer’s culture and values.” A lack of advancement opportunities was the greater driving force behind job changes.

Even more telling is this excerpt from the Wall Street Journal:

“BLS economist Chuck Pierret has been conducting a study to better assess U.S. workers’ job stability over time, interviewing 10,000 individuals, first surveyed in 1979, when group members were between 14 and 22 years old. So far, members of the group have held 10.8 jobs, on average, between ages 18 and 42, using the latest data available.”

The biggest issue facing corporate America today is not recruiting good talent; it is retaining that talent.

Our industry is no different; we face the same problem. Yet our current solution is to offer low pay, no room for growth or advancement, while technicians work long hours in all kind of weather, often away from home and missing family events.

The current system is broken.

The overall problem is a lack of education – at all levels. Like Dr. George Koerner pointed out during the panel discussion in Reno, questions regarding geosynthetics are noticeably absent on a civil engineering exam.

Likewise, there are not many colleges that offer curricula in geosynthetics. And, when a curriculum is offered, there is little available to help the engineer understand the installation, construction and quality assurance processes.

So, how do we fix this problem?

Let’s begin by changing the industry viewpoint that the technician is a disposable, short-term commodity. Instead, the technician should be elevated to a skilled trade.

Nearly all similar positions have a mentorship-type program. Engineers start as engineers-in-training. Plumbers, electricians, and other trades all have an apprentice program where the skill and knowledge is passed down.

Heck, that is even the reason that geosynthetics installation jobs used to require a master seamer with a minimum amount of square foot experience – it was understood that not all technicians would have that level, but they would be under the apprenticeship of the master seamer!

Giving the technician a way to learn, and a way to advance throughout their career (and actually make a livable career), should increase the longevity of the position. But, I don’t think this is going to happen under our current system. I think a more drastic change may be needed to get the industry where it really needs to go:

Separate the technician position as an independent entity.

This independence could be the freedom that is required to serve as a driver for technician education. Let’s face it: sometimes there are forces at work within a company that deter education of the technician (such as higher pay) and even the position having more “prestige” than an engineer.

These alternative forces do not promote the growth of quality in the industry, nor do they promote the quality assurance technician as a career position.

Having independent entities would provide engineers with greater opportunities to evaluate the technicians they want to partner with on a project and create the best possible front line for the specific challenges of their project.

Our industry’s trades, installation and QA are vital components to successful projects. The reality is that we can spend millions on designs and materials but if the project is not installed correctly, it doesn’t matter!

Our engineers deserve to be empowered with a full understanding of these trades and the trades deserve better than a “word of mouth” training process and no career future.

The men of that first Continental Congress were beyond amazing. They found a way to push past their distrust of one another, lay aside their individual political agendas and put all they held dear on the line for a better future for the generations to come.

They knew that to sign the Declaration of Independence was signing their own death warrant. It was treason against the Crown, demanding their lives, their fortunes and their families. In spite of that, all 56 unanimously agreed to declare independence. Their passion for their people is summed up in the final line of the Declaration of Independence:

“We Mutually Pledge To Each Other Our Lives, Our Fortunes, And Our Sacred Honor.”

Today, I honor the men who made great sacrifices, many giving both lives and fortune, to establish our nation and I am inspired to continue to strive to make positive changes in our world today.

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