Challenges for Pakistan Engineers

A Pakistan university Vice Chancellor told me how, when he first took up his position, he challenged his engineering faculty.

“Listen, he said, you and other engineering schools in Pakistan have graduated tens of thousands of electrical engineers, yet, the more you graduate, the worse electricity load shedding becomes.”

“Sir, they replied, that is a political problem, it’s nothing to do with engineering! The politicians have accumulated a huge circular debt, which is not real debt, just an accounting aberration to cover the fact that rich people don’t pay for electricity.”

The Vice Chancellor smiled. “Please remember, he said, electricity and water utilities are staffed and run by engineers. Furthermore, the debt is real debt: Pakistan State Oil now has to pay cash in advance of delivery because it ran up too much unpaid debt with suppliers. As long as people can use electricity without paying enough to cover the cost of fuel to run generators and maintaining and extending all the transformers and cables, the problem will get worse. So whether you like it or not, as far as Pakistan is concerned, it is an engineering problem. That means it’s your problem too!”

Pakistan’s politicians and business community have a low opinion of Pakistan engineers: it is not just load shedding and poor water service quality. Pakistan is a high cost operating environment, and Pakistan engineers (with a few notable exceptions) have a poor record for delivering on promises: on-time, with good quality, high safety standards, and within financial constraints. In short, Pakistan is an unattractive destination for capital investment because engineers (among others) don’t deliver what they promise.

That’s the bad news.

There’s good news, too….. well sort of.

Pakistan engineers are not the only ones with a bad reputation for delivering on promises. It’s happening around the world, even in Australia, where only one in three large engineering projects (over US$1 Billion) provide more than half the expected financial return to investors. That’s an appalling record and no wonder business owners are fed up with engineers.

The problem is shared around the world.

However Pakistan also has an image problem: it is seen from the outside as a haven for terrorists, chaotic, with bombs going off every other day, and corrupt governments. In my long experience of visiting Pakistan (for several weeks a year), while there is a terrorism problem, there are many worse places to be. US cities have much higher murder and homicide rates (usually concentrated in localised areas, typically run-down inner city areas). Lots of other countries have corruption problems too.

Unfortunately, the Pakistan government does not have the resources to spend money advertising the truth, so the image problem persists.

Government behaviour in business has not helped. Pakistan has a reputation for treating sovereign debt obligations (ie payments promised by the government) rather casually, and has hurt many investors who have been trying to help build Pakistan’s economy.

Ultimately, though, these problems can be traced to the high cost environment in which Pakistan finds itself. Agricultural productivity is very low by world standards, far lower than the land itself could produce. You don’t have to look further than the real economic cost of safe drinking water, and the cost of providing 24 hour uninterrupted power, both far higher than in industrialised countries. Labour costs per hour are low, but industrial productivity is also very low, so the cost of achieving a given result with the same quality standard is higher than, say, in Europe or the USA or Australia. With high costs and low incomes, it is little wonder that there are resource shortages.

These are engineering challenges. Engineers are ultimately responsible for providing the means to lift human productivity, so that people can do more, in less time, and using less energy and material resources.

As I have explained in my book, these are all challenges that Pakistan engineers could overcome by learning to emulate expert engineers, of which there are a few in Pakistan already. It is just that there are so few of them, it’s hard for other engineers to learn from them. That’s why I have written this book and that’s why I am releasing it in Pakistan in a few weeks. The book explains why expert engineers can command such high salaries: because they provide real value for their employers. Yet the skills and knowledge the experts have can be learned by any engineer prepared to work hard. If enough Pakistan engineers take up this challenge, the future of Pakistan will be very bright, and load shedding will become a distant memory.

The book will be launched in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi – contact the author for invitations to the launch.

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