My 40 + years journey as a Construction Professional

My 40 + years journey as a Construction Professional

Steve Keightley-Smith (SKS), a Construction Professional with 41 years of experience under his belt, shares his story of how he managed to build a successful career in construction. He has a few words to share with current and prospective professionals who are looking to advance their careers.

THHP: How did you get into the construction industry?

SKS: I watched the building of the M1 highway in Johannesburg which was close to my home while I was at school and was fascinated and very interested in the process.

THHP: What are the significant drivers that motivated you to enter this profession?

SKS: The fact that it’s an interesting and challenging environment and it’s mostly an outdoor activity. Moreover, the satisfaction you get from creating tangible results as well as building teams to achieve the required results.

THHP: You have been in the construction industry for over 40 years now, what have been some of your biggest accomplishments?

SKS: 1994: The SA Breweries Alrode Brewery Expansion. I was the deputy project manager. This was a joint venture between Concor Civils & WBHO where we spent three years on-site. We had piling, heavy concrete foundations, a new brew-house, rail tippler foundations, malt concrete silo slides, structural steel, effluent pipelines, roads and storm-water.

1998: Orapa Diamond Mine Project 2000. This entailed the doubling up of the diamond processing plant at Orapa diamond mine. I was the contracts’ manager on-site for a joint venture between Concor Civils & M&R Construction. We had a staff of ± 100 and a labour force of ± 800 people. The contract value was ±R180 m with very tight deadlines, high-quality tolerances & finishes, a cross-border contract with limited local available skills. We were on site for ± 2 years, worked very hard and had a great team spirit. We handed the project over to the client, and they were very happy with the programme, quality and cost.

2000: The Daimler Chrysler Paint Plant in East London. The project was to build a new paint plant for Daimler Chrysler for the new C class Mercedes which was being manufactured in South Africa for the first time. I was the contracts’ manager for a joint venture between Concor Civils and Concor Coastal. This was a very difficult site with poor founding conditions, limited space, demolitions, new teams, bad weather and a difficult labour environment. We managed to hand over the paint plant to the following German contractors on time to the right quality and budget. 

2004: The Limpopo Railway Line in Mozambique; this was the refurbishment of 200 Km of railway line from Maputo to Chokwe in Mozambique. It was a cross-border contract with many language & cultural challenges as well as limited existing infrastructure and support. There were landmines & RPG rockets along the line, and we had to depend on Mozambique Railways to supply rolling stock with limited resources.

2013: I was the contracts director during the expansion to the platinum processing plant at Ngezi Platinum Mine in Zimbabwe. We had to manage a new roaster foundation at Kamoto Copper Mine in the DRC, five months at Medupi Power Station on the Ash dams, coal stockyard civils as well as primary & secondary clarifiers.

THHP: What most excites you about your work?

SKS: The variety of work, the different challenges, working with people, learning something new every day, meeting new people all the time and working out how to work with them.

THHP: What are the most interesting trends that you’ve seen across the construction industry in South Africa – so far?

SKS: The growth of design & construction projects, the variety of low maintenance finishes available, the growth of the renewable energy sector and developments around the Gauteng stations.

THHP: What are some of the challenges employees face in the industry?

SKS: Limited civil engineering spend by government, mines and the private sectors due to the struggling economy, limited work available, limited money available for training, lack of skills in the industry, a more militant and difficult labour environment, traffic problems in urban areas, unrealistic construction durations & planning projects, long working hours, more stringent safety requirements on-site, more safety responsibility placed on on-site staff with new safety regulations.


The potential for more cross-border work requirements due to limited work in South Africa forcing the contractors to look elsewhere to find work, pressure on consulting engineers to reduce costs results in shortcoming in tender documentation, designs and drawings, limited work for consulting engineers now means there will be limited work for contractors in 6- 12 months’ time ;  just to name a few.

THHP: How is the Construction  job market in South Africa at the moment?

SKS: It is difficult, due to the above challenges. However, private sector small developers are still quite active in the townhouse and shopping centre market with very competitive prices. Some major developments are being built in the Sandton and Waterfall estate areas, also with very low prices.

THHP: What is your advice to graduates and professionals looking for a job in the Construction industry?

SKS: If they manage to find a job, then they need to grab the opportunity.

Put in extra hours at the company. Volunteer for additional work to get more experience and to help the company in whatever way they can.

Get to know the important people in the company and learn the company systems as quickly as possible to avoid wasting time.

Spend more time listening and learning rather than talking.

Appreciate that all the people in the company can teach you something, not just the senior people.

Get on with the people in the company. People will teach you if you are prepared to listen and try hard.

Don’t be scared to ask if you don’t know or are not sure, especially when there is money involved.

Keep to your word or communicate if there is a problem.

Communicate, so your boss and fellow workers know what is going on.

Be responsible and accountable.

Don’t job hop. Spend a minimum of 4 years with a company so that you get solid experience; especially at the start of your career.

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