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Beware false profits


Any attempt to artificially influence the fees charged by structural engineers can only be described as a very dangerous game. Modern business history is, after all, littered with the corpses of commoditised services.

It is very easy to understand the frustration felt by very able fims who find themselves being constantly beaten up over cost by tough clients. Certainly structural engineers, like other professionals in this industry, provide valuable and unique services that should command a greater reward than the 1.2% fees 2% margins quoted on NCE's news pages this week.

And it is easy to understand how important it is for the engineering profession to have the resources to attract and retain the best quality staff to deliver the highest quality services.

But it is far less easy to see how the Institution of Structural Engineers' proposed publication of 'historical' information as a guide to fees to be charged by structural engineers for their services in future will make the slightest bit of difference to their current woes.

In fact, quite why a learned institution is even embroiled in this debate is unclear - its role is surely to safeguard professional standards and protect the public, not to lobby on behalf of business.

Yet putting all that aside, prescribing what to charge for what services can surely only result in an even greater focus by clients on cost; lead to increased pressure on fees; and accelerate the spiral of cost reduction.

To talk about a 'discounting crisis' surely is to accept that you have a commodity that is equal and comparable to that offered by your competitors.

That is not the place for any professional to be. A change in mind set is required.

Professional structural engineering - professional engineering full stop - is about creativity and finding solutions to meet client needs. It is about finding unique structural solutions and innovative ways to service client needs.

To put it bluntly: if you can't persuade your client to pay your price for your services then you deserve to be out of business.

It's a tough stance I know.

But the reality is that the professional engineering world has changed dramatically even in last decade. It is quite simply not good enough to offer the services that you offered yesterday and expect to be able to charge the same price. As in all things, doing nothing means going backwards.

There is now a huge amount of commodity within the services that professional engineers offer. Technology has made it possible to analyse structures at the push of a button.

Communication has brought globalised working, allowing us to tap into the highly educated, low-overhead resources outside the UK.

And without question, anyone attempting to compete in this market in the same way as they have always done will come unstuck.

Engineers must be properly rewarded. Absolutely. But not simply for the work we do. The reward must come from the value that we create.

The challenge is therefore two-fold. First to ensure that we have suffi cient creativity to meet client needs by providing value-adding services. Second to demonstrate to clients that this service is unique and so worth paying for.

Simply telling clients that the price is going up in future is hardly a robust business or professional solution. It will inevitably fail.

Antony Oliver is NCE's editor

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