Overcoming the infrastructure skills challenge in the developing world

Economic cycle linking the development of physical infrastructure in the developing countries to human resource capacity constraints.

International engineering companies should help to develop in-country skilled resource and technology to meet their infrastructure delivery, says Changiz Roohnavaz.

Infrastructure construction in the developing world faces significant challenges including skills shortage and knowledge gaps, outdated technology, lack of engineering and environmental data and, not least, the logistics due to remote project locations.

This is further exacerbated by demands for a more sustainable and socially responsible approach from international engineering companies by host governments through local content requirements that aim to maximise use of local resources.

The traditional approach of delivering civil infrastructure by sourcing the bulk of project needs from outside the host country may no longer be an option. Skill deficiencies in local workforce and outdated technology are no longer considered valid grounds for international companies not to use available local resource. To make matters more challenging, the host governments themselves continue to focus primarily on the development of the urgently needed physical infrastructure to the detriment of long-term capacity building. With globalisation forces at work, local industry and human resource constraints will persist and further worsen.

The question is - should international engineering companies see it in their long-term strategic interest to help develop in-country skilled resource and technology to meet their infrastructure delivery? The short answer is yes. 

Major companies have been leveraging the use of global design centres (GDC) for cost-effective delivery in generally less developed regions of the world over the last decade. While the GDC business model is primarily aimed at maintaining global companies’ competitiveness, it clearly helps to reduce the gap in technical absorption capacity of those few developing countries where it is located in. This, however, is a small percentage of civil infrastructure construction projects built in the developing world where the benefits to the locals are not realised.

Developing countries have been at the receiving end of modern infrastructure that has been designed and constructed to match the developed countries’ competencies and technology. The lack of existing skills inhibits their participation in those projects. The relatively short-term duration of such projects means that the participating international companies also have little opportunity for growth within local markets even if they initiate a development programme as this would not have moved the locals beyond the required steep and technically demanding learning curve.

But how can this standing pattern be reversed? In parts of the world where poverty, high mortality rates, stagnant economies and growing populations have been the norm for decades, building smart infrastructure is not the answer.

The participating international companies have an ability to innovate and could formulate well-structured skill transfer frameworks with predefined criteria, based on resource available locally, to modify design and construction processes to be more in line with local workforce competencies and technology. This way the socio-economic needs of the locals can be reconciled with the commercial needs of the projects, transforming lives by creating shared value. 

This would gradually elevate and move the local construction industry along the learning curve, preparing the ground for technological advances to be adopted more widely and purposefully. We would then stand a better chance of sustaining our technological lead and business longevity.

All this is pretty much common sense, but the biggest hurdle will be getting the industry to act and think differently. Perhaps the time has come to drop the old protectionist belief that knowledge and technology transfer means nurturing future competitors.

Changiz Roohnavaz is a project director at Mott MacDonald.