I have been thinking of an engineer not only as a wage earner but also as a job creator, an engineer not just as an employee but an employer. Many have peddled the image of an engineer as a timid but focused individual relegated to a workshop hammering away at metals to the extent that such an image has become sticking yet anemic.Making my way through the University of Nairobi, Mechanical Engineering Department, I noticed that every time I introduced myself as a student of mechanical engineering, most would ask if I would move to Kirinyaga Road or Ngara to ply my trade as a vehicle mechanic after graduation.
There are many misguided opinions on the loose as to what the Kenyan engineer should be. I have come to think of an engineer as an entrepreneur and a focused developer of his country, as such when I got the chance to meet Eng. James Mwangi, I did not hesitate.
Who is Eng. James N. Mwangi?
Getting into his office at Upper Hill, you notice quite literally he is a man surrounded with accolades. He comes through as an individual bursting with life, very jovial and forthcoming. He is the Chief Executive Officer of Kurrent Technologies Limited, a consultancy firm that provides complete energy solutions.
He has an enviable participation record in professional bodies. He is chairman and council member of the Association of Consulting Engineers of Kenya (ACEK), a registered consulting engineer with Engineers Registration Board (ERB), a corporate member of the Institute of Engineers of Kenya (IEK), secretary and member of executive committee of GAMA (Group of African Member Associations) comprising of associations of consulting engineers of African countries, Director, Petroleum Institute of East Africa (PIEA) and a member of several technical committees at Kenya Bureau of Standards.
As for registration with licensing bodies to practice, he is registered by the Engineers Board of Kenya (EBK) and the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA)
Eng. James N. Mwangi is an engineer with twenty four years of experience in design and various aspects of contract administration for petroleum engineering, environmental, safety and related works, management systems and administration.
He has a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Nairobi. He previously worked with the then Ministry of Housing and Physical Planning and Central Glass Industries for a total of four years.
He has wide experience in the design and construction of energy projects including petroleum facilities ranging from service stations, to liquid petroleum gas (LPG) and petroleum depots/terminals/pipelines. He has international experience with petroleum facilities having worked in the United States of America as a consultant (with Caltex Petroleum Corporation) in the petroleum industry and carried out petroleum projects in the Far East and regional countries. He also has wide experience in Environment, Health and Safety areas. He has undergone many technical training courses and has presented many papers in difference conferences. He is 53 years young. He is a teetotaler and a gym enthusiast.
I have observed very many engineers go jobless through different circumstances including staff layoffs while others never get the chance to work in the first place. This year, in a bid to tame the spiraling wage bill in Kenya, Cabinet Secretary Ann Waiguru has set in motion a bid to relieve up to one hundred thousand public officers of their jobs. Some of these will be engineers. Many graduates of engineering in Kenya, for a myriad of alternating reasons, which include lack of experience which they have no chance of obtaining before exposure to the work place, are unemployed.
Most engineering graduates are also forced to eke a living in other fields including hawking of loan deals and other menial jobs. It is also worth noting that we have a shortage of engineers in Kenya. This lack in the midst of abundance presents a paradox, for me this will only be bridged by engineering entrepreneurship.
How has life been for you since you left formal employment, I ask Eng. Mwangi after settling in his office. He responds; ‘The last thirteen years have been very exciting and particularly fulfilling to me. I see no reason why other engineers cannot be successful entrepreneurs. The country and the region need many entrepreneurs.
Statistics reveal that the small and medium scale enterprises account for fifty percent of the gross domestic product of the country. Small and medium scale enterprises (SMEs) and the informal sector employ up to 80 percent of people currently. They create about 90 percent of new employments. As such engineers in this country have a role to play in making this a better country through entrepreneurship’.
‘The idea that you have to wait until you are old to start a company should not be there. Big companies like Microsoft and Face book were not started by old guys. Not everyone can be employed by the big companies’ the engineer says.
He says that what spurred him on to entrepreneurship was the realization that Caltex could one day just decide to axe him. At the time before his departure, Caltex was reviewing its operations and streamlining its operations. Others who he worked with had received their separation letters. He did not wait for his, he opted out.
Easing the impact of job loss
‘Employers have a moral obligation to adequately prepare employees for changes in corporate strategy that may result in loss of jobs’ the engineer maintains ‘In the event of a job loss, I would advise one to put their family ahead of anything else. Family support during this critical time is very important.’ He adds.
He advises that actually retrenchment is not that bad if those who are being retrenched have worked and have gathered some skills. They should go ahead and form their own enterprises. How come they cannot use those skills to start their own enterprises? The logic is that if you were employed to do a certain job and you did it so well for your employer, why you can’t start a shop offering those very services is unacceptable. You should start your firm, and then offer your former employer a chance to outsource those jobs to you.
This logic is the very one that Eng. Mwangi applied. He did not sever ties with Caltex but just adjusted the dynamics of it. He was an employee of Caltex on a Friday and the Tuesday that followed it He was on a plane on his way to a project as a consultant for Caltex.
If you decide to leave employment, base your decisions on the skills you already have and the networks that you have built. Do not leave your job to go start a Matatu business that you know very little about. Sharing his insights the engineer says ‘People, who are leaving employment or want to leave employment, should become entrepreneurs. They should base their exit on their skills, employees should plan their exit, and if they do not plan it other people will plan it for them.’
‘Keep in touch with your former colleagues and peers, explore partnerships within business with friendly colleagues, joint ventures have a higher survival rates’ Says the engineer.
At Kurrent technologies He partners with Sanjay Gandhi who is the Chief Operating Officer. Sanjay is a Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineer and has practiced in the oil and gas industry since 1990. They were together at Caltex and in the United States working in the mid-nineties. They each spent two years working there. It was a great eye opener for the two and the idea to form a formidable consulting firm was hatched there.
Partnering is not only limited to your peers but also those who have better capacity than you. He noted the power of partnering with foreign companies in 2004. Most times it is good to partner with foreign firms because sometimes you do not have the skills or the capacity while those foreign companies have it. You also may not have a strong name or brand. It helps to walk with the strong and learn from them. They also support those who are trying to grow.
‘Partnering has helped us do several major projects be they LPG complex facilities, large petroleum depots, major petroleum pipelines, Power generation projects among other works in the past. Now we are up in Turkana oil blocks doing major works. Our partnerships with foreign firms are very important to us,’ Eng. Mwangi adds.
Another important step has been his active engagement in professional organisations. These include the Association of Consulting Engineers of Kenya where he is the chairman, the Kenya Private Sector Alliance(KEPSA) where he sits on the Energy Sector Board, the Association of Professional Societies of East Africa where he sits on the council, the Petroleum Institute of East Africa where he is a director and many others. He explains that lobbying is critical for any entrepreneur or person wishing to have an issued addressed. He sums it up by saying that “If you are not seated at the table then you are part of the menu.” He has chosen to take a “seat at the table.”
It is worth noting that the procurement law in Kenya says you should have forty percent local content in all major projects that involve foreign players. The biggest problem is that this is not being adhered to. There are many parties who are currently advocating for a local content law. The goal of the law is to ensure that most of the revenue stays in the country and most of the engineering and infrastructure jobs are done by the Kenyans.
When the locals do these jobs the money stays in the economy. The individuals invest locally. To undertake those jobs they employ locally and the cash they earn they spend in the country’s economy.
Training, unemployment and exporting of jobs
‘Let the rewards of the engineering profession be seen, Let there be a structured training program. Let the engineering student be embedded in an industry. Let the young engineers be enabled. It is very unfair for an engineering graduate to leave the university and not know even what a pump impeller looks like. Let them have industrial exposure. Let them have some money to afford a decent life. Let there be work especially now that we have so many engineering related projects in the country’ the engineer says.
The engineers have taken a “back seat” for too long. It is time they took the right seat in society. They must not only design and build infrastructure. They must also own and operate them.
To this he adds, ‘the government should give young engineers opportunities to work. One of the initiatives the government should have is to give provisions within the project contract sums for engaging interns and new graduates. The burden of training should still stay with the government.
When the foreign companies get most of the work there is a net outflow of capital and work. This leads to job loss and lack of money circulating in the economy even if the infrastructure is built or job done. Too much money should not be plucked from the economy. The people should be empowered and enabled locally to undertake these jobs and create wealth.
The foreigners come to handle the major project which is okay as the locals enhance their skills and capacity. If they are not stopped they start to compete for the small projects and soon they will be repairing cow sheds. This takes work away from the locals and increases unemployment.
The practicing engineers also have a duty to empower the younger graduates. The engineer says ‘If you are able and you do not help a person willing to work and better their lives, you are guilty.’
With hindsight he says there have been improvements over time but there is a still lot of room to achieve, but change should be carried out respectfully. I like the engineer, look forward to better times for engineers as entrepreneurs. The government is creating an enabling environment. We should take full advantage of the opportunity.