My career trajectory and passion for project and construction management in the  construction industry

My career trajectory and passion for project and construction management in the construction industry

Paul Netscher (PN), construction author and former MD of WBHO’s Civil Engineering Division shares with The HardHat Professional his career trajectory and passion for project and construction management in the  construction industry.

THHP: Briefly tell us about your background.

PN: After graduating with a BSc Civil Engineering degreeI joined WBHO as a site engineer on a large project. I moved on to manage my own section, then my own project, eventually becoming a Contract Director looking after multiple projects, and then MD of the newly formed Civil Division of WBHO. In this time with WBHO I was fortunate to be involved in a variety of projects, from heavy civil, industrial and mining projects, to buildings, reservoirs, water treatment plants, dams and bridges. In 2010 I moved to Australia and worked for various contractors in different roles. 

Now I share my construction knowledge and experience with the world. I have written six construction books and regularly publish articles on various websites. I am fortunate that I regularly have people across the world reaching out to me asking for advice or giving me feedback on my articles and books.

THHP: You are passionate about Project/Construction Management. Why?

PN: I enjoyed the challenges of every project – it is not unlike playing chess or doing a difficult puzzle. Solving a difficult problem has always been rewarding. No day was the same.  There was also the satisfaction of completing a job successfully. Of course, I always enjoyed mentoring people too.

THHP: You have mentored many construction professionals, and most of them have nothing but praise for you. How did you do that?

PN: The important thing is to respect the person, no matter their background. Nobody knows everything, and everyone makes mistakes.

One of my ex-mentees summed it up well. He said he always knew when he had messed up (indeed, on occasion, I think I was very loud with my dissatisfaction). However, he went on to say that the next day had been like nothing had happened – I held no grudges, and the incident was forgotten, the project, and their career moved forward.

It is always important to give feedback to people – both good and bad. Often people don’t know they are doing something wrong because bosses don’t give them feedback or tell them how to improve.

My motto for mentoring people is to make that person better than me. After all, I made mistakes along the way, and if I passon my knowledge and experience to those I am mentoring, they shouldn’t make the same mistakes. I hope I achieved this.  Of course, mentoring is a two-way street, and the mentee does have to be enthusiastic and willing to learn and take the good with the bad.

THHP: In your opinion, what makes a good construction professional?

PN: You have to be able to communicate properly – both verbally and in writing. You need to be good at soft skills, to be able to delegate and negotiate effectively, to manage people and resources – which is what I focus on in my books and articles.

You must be able to think through and solve problems – the first solution isn’t always the best. You must be able to work with people. You have to be resilient – things will go wrong. You have to be prepared to work hard. Importantly, you do need a supportive partner and family because construction isn’t easy on them.

THHP: What are some of the key lessons young construction professionals should learn?

PN: Be willing to learn – thirty years later I know there is still tons of stuff I don’t know. Ask questions when you aren’t sure.

Good record keeping and paperwork are essential.

Always take pride in your work. Never try and bury or hide problems – they have a habit of biting you later – take ownership and fix them now. 

Construction is a team effort – I would never have achieved what I did without those that worked with me – so training your team is essential to your success. 

Don’t look for excuses – indeed, in construction, there will always be an excuse (bad weather, difficult clients, suppliers and subcontractors that let you down, mistakes in the tender, bad economy, etc.) – get on and prevent problems and solve those that arise – that’s your job.

THHP: You have worked on many projects both in South Africa and around the world; tell us about the most memorable one.

PN: Every project is different. Some were memorable for working with a great team, some because we made good profits, some because they went exceptionally well, and others because we overcame difficult obstacles or came up with innovative solutions. 

Regrettably, there are some projects that are memorable for the wrong reason – we had a serious accident, lost lots of money, or faced a difficult client. I wish we had done these projects differently.

Unfortunately, most of my projects are hidden or buried from view on distant sites. I enjoyed the cable-stayed pedestrian bridge across the N1 in Johannesburg near 14th Avenue which was a small project, but unique and visible.

THHP: You have travelled  the globe – how would you compare the construction skills in South Africa with other countries?

PN: I wouldn’t say I have travelled the world (maybe on holiday), but my books and articles have been read in many countries. I have been fortunate to get positive feedback from people in Australia, South Africa, the UK, Canada, Spain, USA, Russia, Brazil and more.

Everywhere, construction faces similar challenges: a lack of skills (trades and project management) and the industry moving from boom to bust cycles. Recruits to the industry are not taught the basics properly, and the industry is not attractive to the new generation.

Often contractors, governments and clients are only focussed on short-term gains and not what will be good for them, the industry and the country in the medium to long-term.

The SA construction industry does face additional challenges, which include very low productivity. Indeed, in many countries, the workforce on construction projects is 25% of that on a site in South Africa. It is not because these sites are more mechanised, it is just better productivity and individuals doing more work. Unfortunately, the wages in SA don’t foster good productivity.

Crime and corruption in South Africa is a major challenge. Also, South Africa has some managers still living in the past, while some people expect a free ride. The people in the country need to move forward, work together (it is a team effort) and realise that there is no free ride – hard work is required. Change is inevitable – you can’t stop it, but you must make it good for everyone.

THHP: Who did you look up to as a young construction professional and why?

PN: I can’t say I looked up to one person in particular – rather I tried to learn from everyone – both how to do things and how not to do things. Learning from mistakes is as important as learning the correct methods. I learned from contract directors and foremen. I learned from project managers and clients. I think you must strive to be honest with yourself and be the best you can.

THHP: How has the industry changed since you were a young construction professional?

PN: Unfortunately, the industry hasn’t changed enough – regarding productivity and new methods, materials and technology. The industry is very slow to change.

One good thing is that safety has improved – I cringe at the way we did things when I first started. I am still not sure how we slept at night. There is no excuse for accidents on construction projects. Having accident-free projects is possible.

Possibly, the industry is now relying too much on lawyers and is too quick to rush to the courts. It is partly because of poor contractual knowledge by owners/clients and contractors, poor contracts, and a lack of integrity by one of the parties. I have always been able to resolve disputes amicably. (Which is why I wrote: ‘Construction Claims: A Short Guide for Contractors’.)

Construction always used to be fun, and I am not sure what has happened now. A lack of time, maybe? 

THHP: If you have to go back in time, what would you fix as far as far as your career is concerned?

PN: I was very fortunate with my career, so probably I wouldn’t change too much. Maybe I would prevent the problems that did occur on some of my projects!

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