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Low performance in Math, Science taking toll on construction sector

Prime Minister Samuel Hinds addressing the 4th Engineering Conference

High cost overruns, delays and poor quality construction work are the result of few qualified and competent engineers and other personnel in the construction sector due to declining interest in Mathematics and Sciences, a senior official of the Ministry of Public Works said Thursday.

Chief Works Officer, Geoffrey Vaughn’s assessment was contained in a presentation titled “Challenges Facing the Construction Sector” at the Public Works 4th Engineering Conference held in collaboration with the University of Guyana at the Guyana International Conference Centre (GICC).

In a frank and hard-hitting presentation, he told participants that the time has come to urgently improve performances in Mathematics and Sciences because official statistics are unflattering. “We have to try to fix that. For us to move on, we have to deal with the core which is our schools. If the Sciences and the Math are not up to scratch, it is obvious that our construction sector will continue to suffer,” Vaughn told a gathering that included the Ministers of Public Works and Education as well as foreign investors.

Using the Ministry of Education’s figures, the Public Works Ministry official said that the 2012-2013 Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) results shows that many students are not passing the science-base subjects such as Mathematics (30.35%), Chemistry (52.39), Physics (54.34%) and English (45.69).

In reviewing reports from the University of Guyana’s (UG) Faculty of Technology for the period 2009 to 2013, he found out that 2,900 students enrolled for the Engineering programme from a total enrolment of 31,090 or 9.3% for the five year period of the total University population

At the Government Technical Institute (GTI), Vaughn said there was a “decline in its pass rate” for 2012 (76%) and 2013 (58%)- an overall drop of 18%. It must be known that 15% of the student population drop-out for various reasons.

“The issues raised in training gives us an understanding to the reasons for time overrun, basic understanding of Bill of Quantity while tendering, lack of understanding of the procurement rules and cost overrun,” he said.

The Public Works official stated that the issue of quality is closely related to training and development, they are shortages of clerk of works and technicians whom on most projects has the responsibility of ensuring quality and standards as per contract specifications. He added that poor quality of construction means that there will be a high percentage of rework which we have seen over the last five years.

He explained that poor quality in construction results in rework. Poor quality elements not only do not perform in the manner for which the structures were designed and built. He said they possess reduced capacity, but they last only a fraction of their design life; this issue have become one of our major concerns in the construction of our roads bridges and also buildings.

He stated that often builders excuse or attempt to justify poor quality by saying they are working to meet schedules or deadlines or cutting cost of construction. “We have seen instances where poor quality has led to contract being terminated as per contract condition. Poor quality construction is all around us, our roads, buildings, as well as our other infrastructures and utilities,” he added.

UG Vice Chancellor, Professor Jacob Opadeyi observed that the low enrolment in the Faculty of Technology was due to low performance in engineering programmes at his tertiary institution due to substandard performance in Mathematics and Physics at secondary schools. Opadeyi said UG’s remedial action would include offering an Online degree programme in four areas including two subjects and the local institution was collaborating with Open University UK to assist secondary schools in teaching those core subjects. “Once they have people who are qualified there will be a major improvement in our curriculum,” he said.

Opadeyi also hoped that a World Bank-funded project would help boost UG’s capacity to deliver Science and Technology programmes and so improve the institution’s capacity in contrast to how he met it on taking up appointment there two years ago.  The Vice Chancellor urged the Public Works Ministry to partner with UG in providing the required training in a variety of engineering fields even if it means purchasing the equipment and hiring personnel. Opadeyi encouraged the ministry to send their retired and serving experts to share their knowledge with students. In terms of financing, the Vice Chancellor boldly recommended to the Guyana government that 0.1 percent of the budget of any major contract coming to the country should be set aside for human resource development in engineering.

Revelations by the Public Works’ Chief Works Officer and UG’s Vice Chancellor came against the background of concerns by President Donald Ramotar about substandard supervision, delays, high costs and poor planning. “We still have to plan better. We still have a far way to go to cut costs and bring things into budget on time,” said the Guyanese letter. In some instance, the President noted, there have been question marks about soil tests, preparation, insufficient supervision as well as too cosy relationships between contractors and engineers. “We still have too many people who are poor and whenever we see these types of things that in my view could be avoided, it pains me that we have other needs and some of these things are overrun in a big way,’ he said.

Veteran Guyanese engineer Philip Allsopp recommended that the decades-old problem of skills shortage could be partly solved if degree-qualified engineers are trained locally in project execution. He cited the need for a government Training Officer to identify the required skills for big projects. “Unless those skills are identified at all levels and steps taken to meet them we will find ourselves in trouble because we do not always get help from outside,” he said.

During the question and answer session Director of Programming in the Ministry of Finance Tarachand Balgobin said contractors’ technical capacity related the quality of persons they are putting on the job. He said a major problem was government endorsing, accepting and scoring highly bids by contractors that do not have qualified personnel. “We are shooting ourselves in the foot when we acknowledge and accept unqualified and under-performing technical capacity and scoring it as if it were technically competent which means it is driving the contractor not to employ and not to seek to employ the standard technically competent personnel that is required for the job,” he said. Balgobin contended that contractors were not responsible for delivering poor quality work unless proper supervision was lacking.
The Finance Ministry official recommended the imposition of hefty default fees if contractors do not complete projects on time.

Reacting, Public Works Minister Robeson Benn said he did not want to appear to be skirmishing with the Planning Unit of the Finance Ministry. He noted that part of the problem was going for the lowest responsive bid. In that regard, he said that was why he had insisted that no estimate should be accepted if it is 10 or 15 percent plus or minus of the engineer’s estimate.