Building for the Present. Training for the Future
Training and mentoring of Afghan engineers and contractors is critical in transitioning to a safe and secure Afghanistan.
By Lt. Cdr. Mark Tipton, P.E., CEC, USN and Lt. Col. Richard Smith, PMP, M.SAME, USAR
Capacity Building is essential for improving the quality of life and ensuring the future security of Afghanistan. Training and mentoring Local National Quality Assurance (LNQA) personnel and contractors is a critical element of Capacity Building in order to develop qualified construction personnel and construction techniques.
The Kabul Area Office, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Afghanistan Engineer District – North, is training LNQA personnel and contractors on current construction techniques. Many buildings in Afghanistan are traditionally built with brick with little or no reinforcement or mortar used in the construction, even in the supporting columns. This leads to problems when the building is subjected to stress from an outside force. In order to improve the ability of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to protect Afghanistan citizens, construction projects delivered through USACE provide contractors and LNQA personnel with the techniques that can improve resistance to external forces. On USACE construction projects, supporting columns for all buildings are made of reinforced concrete even though the walls between the columns are standard brick or masonry block. If an external force strikes, the buildings may be damaged; but they will not collapse. This protects those inside and outside the facility.
Another aspect of Capacity Building involves potable water and waste treatment. If there is not enough water to naturally support the base, wells are drilled to provide water. If installations do not have enough power for the buildings under construction, power plants provide uninterrupted power. To ensure ground water remains uncontaminated by the new structures, waste water treatment facilities are constructed or the installation is connected to existing facilities. Each of these requires training LNQA on how to identify deficiencies and mentoring the contractors on correct installation techniques. It is also critical to train personnel on operation of the facilities and improving their technical knowledge, thereby improving their employment opportunities.
The Kabul Area Office maintains a training program for LNQA personnel. This program identifies training priorities from issues identified during quality assurance/quality control inspections by Project Engineers and Construction Representatives on project sites and topics supplied by the Local National Deputy Resident Engineers and LNQA personnel who work closely with the Local National Contractors.
The training is conducted monthly on topics such as quality control issues, project management, invoicing, concrete mix design, concrete reinforcing, electrical, plumbing, vertical and horizontal construction, drainage and compaction. Almost all LNQA personnel have engineering degrees or an engineering background. The main purpose of the training, then, is to assist with understanding current construction practices and USACE standards, enabling them to share this knowledge with local Afghan contractors.
Training local engineers provides the opportunity for Resident Engineers, Project Engineers and Construction Representatives (ConReps) to correct issues across multiple resident offices, improving quality on all projects with minimal expenditure of time and resources.
The Kabul Area Office has roughly 40 LNQA personnel working on more than 60 projects in Kabul Province, with another $100 million in projects within some facet of being awarded. To maintain situational awareness on the construction projects, LNQA personnel transmit daily inspection reports and pictures to the Project Engineers and ConReps, allowing them to monitor progress without the necessity of daily site visits. This allows issues to be identified before they cause construction delays. This also reduces the risks during movement and provides valuable experience for LNQA personnel, who also have the opportunity of overseeing much larger construction projects than normally seen in Afghanistan. Many projects for ANSF surpass $20 million. Some of the largest projects can top $100 million.
Once LNQA personnel have gained enough field experience they are able to conduct training. This greatly reduces the workload of USACE personnel, leaving them to focus on developing the overall training plan and the training materials. Additionally, it has given LNQAs more “ownership” and empowers them to develop public speaking and presentation skills.
Mentoring LNQA personnel is beneficial for both Afghans and USACE, as many LNQAs lack the field experience needed to fully utilize their strong educational training. ConReps and Project Engineers have the opportunity to mentor and share their extensive knowledge of current construction methods and techniques. Since many of the ConReps and Project Engineers have industrial construction experience, they are able to show both LNQAs and local contractors more efficient ways of meeting contract requirements.
In one instance, a ConRep for the South Resident Office showed a local contractor various electrical metallic tubing (EMT) bending techniques to create offsets and other complicated angles/bends. This came after watching him cut conduit and use connector boxes to make 90 degree bends. The contractor not only learned how to more efficiently install EMT conduit, but also saved on material costs because they were able to reduce the number of connections required.
In another instance, a ConRep for the Central Resident Office was faced with a delicate situation, ultimately carving a far more promising path than initially could have been expected. When he arrived in Kabul, two LNQAs were on the verge of being fired. Instead, he transferred them to his projects and began mentoring them. From the beginning, his goal was to turn these men into decision makers, emphasizing that quality was their responsibility and required them to take personal ownership of the construction site. He encouraged them to hold the contractor accountable and supported them on every decision. He held them responsible for deficiencies and safety concerns. At first, this occupied considerable amounts of time: visiting projects three times a week, focusing on mentoring LNQAs, holding them up to his high standards. As time progressed, though, their performance and confidence grew.
Several months in, the ConRep was then only visiting for spot checks, major milestones and inspections. The projects are running smoothly and LNQAs are doing a phenomenal job. They still meet weekly to review any issues or concerns, but the result of the growing pains and dedication has been team building—and foundation building.
The success of the training and mentoring program translates directly to the construction site. USACE personnel hold weekly meetings with LNQA personnel and the contractor’s representatives to discuss the project status, issues and upcoming milestones. The feedback ensures that issues impacting construction are discussed and clarified before they impact construction.
Developing technical knowledge is critical to success. LNQA personnel had not always recognized issues on the construction site that will impact completion and project hand over. On one occasion, they provided a picture of a main distribution panel as an example of the work completed by the contractor. During a site visit, the ConRep noticed that some of the wiring in another area of the site was done improperly. The ConRep stopped the inspection and explained what was wrong with the wiring, ensuring that all personnel understood what needed to be corrected. This provided a solid product for the customer and an excellent training opportunity.
Training and mentoring of Afghan engineers and contractors plays a critical role in the overall objective of transition to a safe and secure Afghanistan. At some point, the Afghan people will move ahead on their own and continue with the work of nation building. USACE employees have a tremendous opportunity now to set up LNQAs for success later.
ConReps take pride in the quality of construction on their respective sites. But it is critical to the overall mission in Afghanistan that they take a lesser role, providing more mentoring and less direct guidance. While the ConReps still play a key part in major milestones, inspections, and critical path elements, the daily and weekly issues of construction quality should fall squarely onto the shoulders of LNQAs.
ConReps also must empower LNQAs to take charge. Over time, USACE ConReps should permit LNQAs to assert themselves. This can be challenging and a little frightening at first with a project budget and timeframe at stake. Yet the charge given to ConReps should be to leave a legacy when their time in Afghanistan is finished. Completing projects is important, but ensuring the Afghan engineers can continue without USACE involvement is far more critical. The legacy should be that ConReps trained and mentored to such a high level of confidence and acumen that they no longer need to go on-site to resolve issues because LNQA personnel already handled them, or stopped them before they started.