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Vic's blog: Are we only a specialist when things go wrong?

If I had a pound for every time I'd heard the phrase, 'well you're the specialist!' when something's gone wrong, I'd be a rich man.

Vic Handley is group deputy managing director of Van Elle

When is a specialist a specialist? My answer… when things go wrong!

As a specialist geotechnical engineering contractor we pride ourselves on our technical knowledge and capabilities, but this simply isn't reflected in the perceptions of some of the clients in the industry today.

If I had a pound for every time I'd heard the phrase, "well you're the specialist!" when something's gone wrong, I'd be a rich man. Usually this infamous utterance is thrown up when things on site have gone pear shaped and the employers are looking to cover their back, clawing back any delays, losses or extra costs they might have incurred as a result of their own failings or lack of information at tender stage.

We all know the ground is a strange beast and that unforeseen problems can arise even from the best run projects, that's why we're here, to help plan for and overcome those situations.

Undoubtedly we are specialists, but time and time again when we try to share our specialist knowledge, it is either not welcomed or even totally ignored.

Now I'm not sure of the reason for this, but I believe that it stems from an inherent mistrust of contractors and contracting as a whole going back many years.

My own experiences of this started in the late 80s and early 90s. After a buoyant period of work the industry appeared to fall apart at the seams. There were contractors going bust left, right and centre with redundancies galore (including me) and any work that was being tendered for was often being won at anything between minus 2.5% and 5% profit. That meant the first person the client would see was a QS whose task was to go through the contract with a fine tooth comb to see where they could contractually pull some money back. In the meantime, the buyer would be trying to screw the sub-contractor to the floor on price in the hope that between them they could bring the contract back into profit. Everyone was out for themselves.

Just as an aside, I also believe that this era had a major impact on the skills shortages we have today. Why? Because parents who had lost their jobs or didn't like the way the industry was going went home and said to their kids, "Whatever you do, stay clear of the construction industry!"

And to a large extent they did…. But that's another story.

Back to the specialist issue.

Everyone wants a cost effective job running at a profit, but sometimes this means trusting and involving specialist sub-contractors early doors. Involvement at this stage is critical and we have proved in the past that substantial savings can be made by thinking ahead and preparing the contract with our help. At the very worst all its going to cost you is a telephone call.

It would be great to hear clients using the term 'specialist' in recognition of what we can add rather than a stick to beat us with.

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