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Time to get sexy

Spotlight - The low-margin, unimaginative site investigation market should feel ashamed of itself, says Andrew Milne, MD of Geotechnical Engineering

THE UK site investigation market is working well. There are good firms and bad firms, big and small, new and old, profitable and loss-making.

There are startups, shutdowns, splitups, buyouts, mergers and bankruptcies. There are firms that abide by the rules and those that flout them; those that are stuck in the past and those that look to the future. It's all 'business', with its rough and tumble, cut and thrust, friends and foes, fun and misery.

As in all areas of business the firms that manage to provide their clients with what they want, at a price they are prepared to pay, while still turning a profit will live and survive. Those that can't, won't - it's as simple as that.

And yet we in the site investigation market should feel ashamed of ourselves. We have somehow allowed ourselves to end up at the bottom of the supply chain, charging low prices for a low technology service that clients don't really want, but feel they ought to have. Few firms are making decent profits.

Other industries are charging ahead, embracing new technologies and welcoming changes in the legal and social environment - and people are making good money.

Meanwhile, we are plodding along at the back, moaning about lack of recognition, scheming to 'force' clients to pay more, doing things the 'way we've always done them'.

The industry is desperately conservative and unimaginative, demoralised and low paid. And we have only ourselves to blame.

How have we arrived at this unenviable position? Well it all starts with people, of course.

There is a shortage of highquality staff in the industry - and not just because there is a lot of work on at the moment.

We do not pay enough to attract the best because we are not making enough money to do so. Why should a bright young thing want to join us? We're not exactly 'sexy' nor are they going to get rich. So we continue to attract and retain predominantly mediocre people, who in turn set the mood for the industry and thus the situation is perpetuated.

Look at some of our failings.

In our laboratories, people are still mixing up mud with a handheld spatula, the same way they were doing decades ago. But the world has changed so much since then.

In the field, the dear old 'shell and auger' rig continues to be some sort of low common denominator. Yes it's cheap and yes it works, but so does a horse and cart.

Young engineers still supervise drilling rigs because we don't trust our drillers. Two engineers are required to write reports - first the contractor's and then the consultant's.

British Standards are arguably 10 years out of date on the day they are published, 15 years out of date by the time they are adopted and 30 years out of date before they are replaced.

Competitive tendering is still the norm in the majority of the industry. There are many more examples.

Radical change and innovation is needed. As ever, this will have to be driven by the contractors.

Of course, consultants, academics, trade associations and commentators have their roles to play. It will all be driven by money, however professional we think we are.

Massive investment is required, in talented people and modern machinery. We need to find ways of achieving far more with far fewer people.

New techniques will become accepted if they can be demonstrated to be technically sound and considerably more cost-effective in the long run.

Clients will perceive our services as good value, our profits will rise, and we will attract, and retain, good people into the industry.

Of course some fi rms are already doing this, but too few.

The winners will be those that are prepared to invest and take a risk. The plodders will fade away.

The market will ensure that.

So, come on. Where are our leaders? Where are our risktakers? We can change.

Let's stop moaning and get on with it.

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