Helping Afghan engineers learn international construction standards
August 17, 2011
- Army.mil: Middle East News
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HERAT, Afghanistan, Aug. 17, 2011 -- A unique hiring program, which began in South District's Herat Area Office in 2008, is a small but significant part of the overarching U.S. national strategy to build Afghan capacity and develop Afghan institutions.
Not only does the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, or USACE, oversee the construction of facilities for Afghanistan's National Police and Army, critical infrastructure upgrades and utility improvements, it also takes seriously the imperative to develop young Afghan engineers into USACE quality assurance representatives, or QARs, and project engineers.
"For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be an engineer. I love my job. I am proud of the work I do for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The hardest part of my job as an engineer in Afghanistan is improving my English skills."
These sentiments are familiar refrains among the young engineers hired through USACE's Afghan training program. In July, seven new Afghan engineers joined the ranks of the Afghanistan Engineer District-South in Herat province.
Getting a job with USACE is highly competitive. The engineer applicants, who are in the top of their graduating class, are interviewed; their skills, technical knowledge and English abilities are tested; and those who are hired have the opportunity to advance to more senior positions as their technical skills improve.
This unique hiring program, which began in South District's Herat Area Office in 2008, is a small but significant part of the overarching U.S. national strategy to build Afghan capacity and develop Afghan institutions.
"The U.S. is not going to be in Afghanistan forever," said Nabil Abourialy, Herat resident engineer. "Training Afghans to manage construction to an international standard sets them and the country up for success."
Lt. Col. Gordon "Mark" Bartley, the Herat Area Office officer in charge, agrees.
"The practical application of world-class construction practices is regarded as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for these young engineers -- an opportunity to use the theory they've gained at college and learn much more than they otherwise would with a civilian construction company," he explained.
Afghanistan lacks the construction code compliance that USACE implements with all construction on job sites, especially safety.
"Doctor Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, the head of Afghanistan's Transition Commission, said in the news recently that more than 70 percent of Afghan buildings are constructed illegally and without observing construction standards," said Bartley.
"USACE QARs are ahead of their peers because they are getting exposure to international standards and learning to implement and enforce them early in their careers," Bartley continued. "Most construction companies limit the tasks of their engineers. We don't. USACE provides them with a well-rounded training and mentoring program that will serve them well into the future."
Of the seven new engineers, six are recent graduates of Herat University; the other graduated from Kabul Polytechnic University.
"The engineers come to us with a basic understanding of English because engineering classes are conducted in English," said Bartley.
Edris, one of the newly hired engineers, said that he is implementing what he studied at Herat University and being able to do so is the best part of his new job.
"No other company builds to the codes and with high standards like USACE does. Spending time on the jobsites and getting to see the physical construction makes my job very rewarding."
Edris works at a remote construction site and that, coupled with security concerns, are his biggest challenges working for South District.
"Security concerns are always present, but they exist for engineers all over the country," he said.
"These young engineers start out as QARs at one of the many South District construction sites throughout the Herat province," said Abourialy. First though, they must sit through a one-week training program that gives them basic knowledge and a broad overview of USACE processes.
"All of our Afghan project engineers have been through the program, and they are the ones who brief the new QARs on a variety of subjects," said Masoud, deputy resident engineer at the Herat Resident Office and a graduate of the evolving training program. "We have six Afghan senior project engineers who present subjects to the new class of QARs and who, along with other Afghan project engineers and QARs, mentor the new engineers until they are fully trained."
Engineer Besmellah, who has been with South District for three years, starts the training with a briefing on the basics of concrete construction, quality control testing, daily quality control report production, and the various U.S. Federal Acquisition Regulations that govern construction contracts.
Engineer Tariq then discusses construction finishing techniques, evaluating contractors, closing out projects and masonry.
"I was assigned these topics because I have closed out several projects and am the most familiar with the requirements for finished projects," he said.
Jawid, an engineer from Herat who has been with South District since 2007, follows with another four subjects: pre-construction meetings, developing and following a quality control plan, electricity 101 and plumbing 101.
"One of my projects had plumbing deficiencies." Jawid said. "During my presentation, I was able to refer to the International Plumbing Code to explain to the new engineers why the techniques used by the contractor were not permitted and how I resolved the deficiency."
Omid, a senior project engineer who is overseeing five construction projects primarily at the adjacent Afghan National Army's Camp Zafar, focuses on the next round of subjects.
"I discuss definable features of work, QA (Quality Assurance) inspection checklists, the three phases of inspection and the (submission) process."
Engineer Wali teaches the new engineers about scheduling and the payment process, safety and security plans, design-build fundamentals, welding 101 and milestone achievement.
Requests for information, daily QA reports and safety issues are presented by Engineer Reza.
"Safety is my number one issue," said Reza. "I use photos to show common safety problems on USACE project sites and photos correcting the problems. On my project sites, we have not had any loss of productivity or accidents leading to injury."
Masoud concludes the initial week-long training with an overview of the QAR responsibilities and limited authorities along with an overview of the South District's organization and mission.
GETTING TO WORK
"The Herat Area Office really benefits from the professionalism of these young engineers," said Abouraily. "We bring these guys on with very little practical experience but within three to four months, they are functioning at a capacity that we expect from their American counterparts."
The Afghan senior project managers perform a full range of duties including developing cost and schedule estimates, researching local market pricing, and supervising and mentoring the QARs. They provide a level of continuity that enables newly deployed USACE engineers and project managers to quickly learn their jobs.
"When the new U.S. project engineers and construction representatives arrive in Herat," said Abourialy, "it is the Afghan senior project engineers who teach them the processes unique to the Herat Area Office. In my first days, I relied on and learned a lot from them. This helped me get up to speed and learn the projects and how to do the administrative steps necessary to keep the projects' continuity."
Since the training program began, these six Afghan engineers progressed through the program tiers -- junior QAR, mid-level QAR, senior QAR and project engineer -- before becoming senior project engineers. No project engineers have left USACE for jobs in the private sector.
"I can speak generally for all of the project engineers who work here," said Masoud. "We wanted to work for USACE because of the reputation it has for building quality construction. We continue to work for USACE because we have become part of a family."
"Our American co-workers and colleagues are professional. The work is rewarding and we get to perform a wide variety of tasks," Masoud continued. "We don't have this type of opportunity anywhere else."
Since the training program began, 31 Afghan engineers have started their careers with the South District Herat Area Office and have been assigned to projects throughout the region. This latest group of seven has a world of knowledge to gain from their committed and professional Afghan and American mentors.
"When I started working for USACE, it was like obtaining my master's degree," said Tariq. "We learn so much here and I want to share that knowledge with these new engineers."
Training is always a part of the job for the South District's Afghan engineers.
"We conduct training on a bi-monthly basis and whoever needs the training attends, whether they are new or have been here a couple of years," Tariq said.
Learning the USACE processes and requirements is fundamental, but just the beginning.
"The initial training was helpful and there is so much to learn," said Edris. "I now know the USACE policies and rules, and my mentor is always available for my questions. What remains for me is to expand my knowledge and become the best engineer that I can."