Never mind the boxes

By Alan Gilham in Ghana

Nothing goes to waste. That’s not some deep sustainability mantra but a reflection on how things I learnt more than 30 years ago are still useful today, literally thousands of miles from where I started.

Let me explain. I started as a site engineer, progressing on to site agent and then on to  design manager for a large construction group in the UK. In the 70s and 80s life was pretty good, big personalities, big projects – not always big bucks, but it was fun. Then came the bust of the early 90s and for 18 months I was a statistic of redundancy, and it was hard.

Pressures are huge when you are unemployed and I sometimes wonder how many of the career advisors who advise mature unemployed candidates have actually made a significant career change themselves – but that is another story.

However, 18 months later, after some strategic retraining and re-orientation, professional life started again, in 1993. There followed a whirlwind romance with construction research, international travel, conference papers and presentations, and carving out a new expertise in sustainable construction. Now that really was fun.

Not only did I have a whole array of new skills and knowledge, but my previous experience allowed me to apply it in practice. First example of how nothing goes to waste.

Since then things have gone a little unconventional for a humble builder. Each time an opportunity has arisen, I have seemingly moved further and further away from my roots in construction management.

Freelance consultant

The "unconventional" that I talk about includes a period as a technical director for a consulting firm, becoming a freelance consultant, giving it all up and making a family move to Ghana, which took me back to basics as I learnt how things work in a sub-Saharan country, doing a PhD, advising NGOs on business development, writing course notes and delivering a corporate governance course to the top firms in Ghana, and so it went on.

And then… I got a job in the transport sector. It just goes to show that you don’t have to be the best consultant to be selected, but you do need to be there and able to demonstrate what you can contribute. Well, I learnt and I contributed and built great relationships and then, almost 10 years on from arriving in Ghana, things have come full circle.

In 2012 I started two projects which have taken me back to my roots. The first is a study for the African Development Bank who are seeking ways in which they can support the growth of domestic construction industries throughout Africa. The second is a $320m infrastructure project in Ghana where a combination of my transport policy experience and my design and construction experience seems to provide the client with exactly what they need. Not only does this give me my second example of how ‘nothing goes to waste’ but both projects seem increasingly entwined and inter-related. There will be more news on both of the projects in future blogs.

But a final thought for our younger professionals: I know that recruiters would like us all to fit neatly into boxes, but for those of you who are not sure which box you fit into, I would say don’t be afraid of change, and follow the opportunities that arise, because nothing goes to waste.

Alan Gilham advises institutional and public sector bodies on construction issues in Africa

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