Too many chiefs

The current overload of consulting companies in comparison to contracting companies is unsustainable in our industry, says Patrick Burke of RPM Consulting Engineers.

By Patrick Burke of RPM Consulting Engineers

According to the informative 2017 HEVAC&R Directory, no less than 128 listed contractors are serving the South African HEVAC&R industry.

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This number includes (inter alia) contractors engaged in allied services such as duct cleaning, cooling tower refurbishments, controls, general insulation, insulated panels, and sheet metal products.

The same directory lists well over 100 registered mechanical engineering practices, all professing to be consultants serving the HEVAC&R industry (this, of course, includes company branches and regional offices).

In this regard, we can safely assume that there are still a number of unlisted entities carrying out business in the HEVAC&R sector.

However, given the listed parties alone, the ratio between contractors and consulting engineers seems somewhat out of proportion.

Nevertheless, no matter what the actual ratio is, it is still a high proportion, so what can we deduce from this situation?

Well, let’s give it a go. Here are some possible (albeit somewhat tongue-in-cheek) scenarios for consideration:

  • Consulting is extremely lucrative and as a result, everyone aspires to become a consulting engineer.
  • A mechanical engineering degree means a guaranteed choice of employment opportunities available from over 100 HEVAC&R consulting firms.
  • Mechanical engineers are unable to get meaningful employment in the public and/or private sectors; hence, the need to establish their own consulting businesses.
  • The layman’s (clients) ignorance of all things HEVAC&R and the surrounding ‘mystique’ enables anyone to engage as a ‘consulting engineer’, regardless of qualification and professional status.
  • Having previously experienced poor service, monetary loss, legal wrangles, ill-advised projects (or worse) at the hands of devious contractors, clients are now demanding the services of a reputable professional, paving the way for private enterprise venture.
  • Engineers are opting for consultancy work as opposed to contracting, given the severe challenges facing the HEVAC&R contracting sector.

No doubt the readers and industry role players can offer a few more reasons as to why the HEVAC&R industry has a consulting engineer overload.

Nevertheless, all will agree that the situation is unsustainable. As the local economy weakens and recession bites, the situation will certainly become progressively worse.

Is there a solution? Your guess is as good as mine. All I know is that the mechanical consulting profession is in free fall, with engineering standards and service levels plunging as I write.

I guess our industry now needs urgent stimulus in the form of more work and above all, better returns. This, in time, will hopefully encourage engineers to return to the contracting field, where they can apply their considerable skills to improving this already seriously flawed sector.

All in all, there has to be a balance. Too many chiefs and not enough Indians, is an expression as old as the hills. 

No doubt it still rings true, and I fear, if not addressed timeously, both contracting and consulting service levels will continue to decline to the detriment of both sectors.

My hope is to see engineering expertise return once again to both the HEVAC&R contracting and consulting fields.

From my experience, the contracting firms owned and managed by qualified mechanical engineers and/or who employ professional engineers, tend to be the larger, more accomplished companies, although of course, this is not necessarily the case, as proved with the very recent unfortunate company liquidations experienced in our industry.

Pat Burke


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