Home' Baird Maritime : October 2011 Contents Perspectives of age,
experience and geography
David Wignall* on the latest port developments
This is a tale of perspective: your angle of view, where you
happen to be, and how they inform your experiences.
That I bother to write it probably reflects the fact that my
favourite advertisement from the 1980s was for UK newspaper The
Guardian, which took the same scene filmed from different
perspectives. Each angle, each width of lens showed the scene to
have very different interpretations, changing individuals from thug
to hero, from victim to rescued survivor.
My story starts a few evenings ago during a very pleasant dinner
with an old friend with whom my company also transacts a little
business. As the wine flowed the conversation came round to how
concerned I was about our difficulties in recruiting and retaining
an experienced project director for a challenging multi-billion
dollar development in Indonesia.
As I mused about similar problems facing a raft of projects in
Asia and Australia, my friend thought perhaps I had finally lost
touch with reality. My follow-on observations about another friend
-- one of those project director beasts who is persistently chased by
headhunters increasingly desperate for people merely worth
placing on a shortlist of possible candidates -- left the hard-won
credibility of my opinions on business and engineering in tatters.
My dining companion's view was rather different. He had
recently arrived from Europe, where jobs are hard to come by even
for experienced project directors. He felt there were no issues in
finding good candidates; indeed, project directors could be offered
in bulk. My arguments, concerning the differences between large
projects in Asia, the nature of candidates' experience, and their
willingness to travel, seemed like face-saving excuses.
Afterwards, my thoughts shifted to other personnel
problems. For example I find it difficult to recruit port planners,
transport economists and experienced port operations
professionals. The problems are compounded by time:
consultants with whom I have worked for twenty years are
moving towards semi-retirement and beyond.
So could these problems be resolved through a more active
recruitment presence in the US or Europe? Trying out this
approach, I looked at the potential pool of port engineers, port
planners and port managers from Europe (and given my
connection the UK in particular). It was an interesting, if less than
Supply and demand
Most port planners come from an engineering background, as
do a smaller but significant percentage of port managers.
Consequently, their numbers are linked to the supply of port
engineers. During the early 1980s, the UK and Europe faced a
less-than-optimistic economic outlook; global recession and
painful restructuring was prevalent. The generation of engineers I
trained with found at the time that, for all its glorious variety of
expressions, engineering was not great when it came to your
salary. Substantial numbers took their numeracy and skills out the
sector into more lucrative areas, or more prosaically, into sectors
where you could actually get a job.
Once you have been out for a few years, engineering is
particularly hard to re-enter. If not for the loss of technical
know-how and the fast-changing standards and methods, for more
simple reasons associated with the ability to motivate yourself to
return to a sector that even today offers tough working conditions
and serious issues regarding work-life balance! Consequently, as
the economy improved, the shortage of engineers lifted the salaries
of those remaining in the profession.
The process left two important, lasting impacts on the
demographics of engineering:
• There is an undersupply of "40-something" engineers with a
good blend of experience.
• Entrance into the profession shrank, reducing the entry-level
supply of graduates and increasing the value of those in the
sector (as shown by the change in starting salaries, even allowing
for inflation, from 1981 to 2001).
So, when I came to look for port engineers and port planners to
ship out to Asia, I found that those with adequate experience to act
as consultants were in short supply. My friend's broader point was
correct -- it is possible to get project directors for export -- but my
pursuit of more niche consultants to support the business for the
longer term is more problematic.
Discussions with another friend based in North America suggest
that my story is not simply a European one; he reports striking
similarities in the situation he faces today. Perhaps, going back to
the beginning, this story tells us why Australia is having such
problems finding project directors.
Filling the gap
An interesting side factor emerged from my research. While port
planners and managers tend to come from engineering
backgrounds, the other source is economics and business. This may
be partly due to their identification of a market gap; with no
engineers to undertake the work, economists step in to fill the gap
by co-ordinating more general engineers and planners.
However, while the CVs of port planners emerging from
economics backgrounds in Asia show lots of impressive real-world
commercial expertise, the same exercise for European CVs reveals
an unhealthy reliance on EU funding. This is natural given the
EU's importance in infrastructure and port projects over the last
twenty years, but it also is a weakness. Economic value, and the
ability of a commercial company to extract that value and generate
revenue, are two very different things.
At the start of my career I worked with older primarily
Western consultants and individuals, but when my career closes
in perhaps twenty years I will be working with younger Asians.
These trends are already quite clear in the current list of those
with whom I work. After removing the geography of projects as
a factor, I can see globalisation written in the details of my
business and life.
*David Wignall has worked in ports for 25 years. He founded his own
company, David Wignall Associates, to develop ports and help managers
get the best out of their terminals.
October 2011 BAIRD MARITIME
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