Challenges in Afghanistan

February 2011 » Columns » BUSINESS Q & A
David M. Roebuck, P.E., CCM, LEED AP

Dear David,
I have been offered a job by USAID Kabul as senior engineer, head of transportation in Kabul, Afghanistan. I appreciate any information/advice that you can share as I take on the challenges of constructing roads and bridges in Afghanistan.
B.R., Mont.

Dear B.R.,
Congratulations on your new position. I work at the embassy in Kabul so we may be seeing each other quite a lot.

As you can imagine, working here is a challenge at times given the lack of infrastructure and lack of capacity (particularly in the construction/engineering area), although there have been some improvements. Being able to communicate with the contractors is difficult given the language and cultural barriers. Oversight of projects is absolutely critical but also difficult given the security situation. We have seen many projects go bad due to the combination of lack of oversight and lack of expertise from the contractor. Using local nationals for oversight has mixed results, but usually due to lack of training, they are a poor substitute for “ex-pat” boots on the ground. I’m not sure how USAID handles project site visits and oversight, but hopefully you’ll be able to get out to your projects at times. The lack of freedom of movement if you’re based at the embassy can be frustrating both personally and professionally, but it is a reality these days. Getting things done timely is another frustration since a good part of your schedule is controlled by others, so I would recommend that you try to be patient and know that things are going to be slow to happen at times.

Career path to construction management
Dear David,

I am a graduating senior from the University of South Florida with my BSCE and would like greatly to start a career in construction and construction management. I have little experience in horizontal construction and even less in vertical construction, but I have found through coursework and construction observation that construction management is the ultimate career path I want to take. I am young, ambitious, and willing to do whatever it takes to get started on this career path. Where would you suggest the best starting point is for me to obtain my current goal?
S.F., Fla.

Dear S.F.,
Congratulations on getting to this point in your education. I urge you to consider a graduate degree in civil engineering or construction management while you’re still in “education-mode.” If you can’t stand the thought of another year or so in the classroom full-time, consider taking some courses as soon as you can and before you get too “tied down.” These days a master’s degree is more important than ever and it will be a good investment for you.

To obtain experience, look for a job as a resident inspector/engineer with an engineering company or as a project engineer with a respected construction company specializing in the type of construction you are most interested in. Seeing projects built in the field will be a great benefit to you and I recommend getting the field experience early in your career if you can. It is also good to have some design experience, and if you work as a field person with an engineering firm, getting into the design part of the business may not be too difficult.

Once you get that first job, try to find a good mentor in the company and don’t be afraid to “get your hands dirty” by taking on jobs or projects that others try to get out of. You want to get as much experience as you can as fast as you can. Showing your willingness to be a team player and being “teachable” will put you in good graces with the senior folks who can provide guidance and direction.

Being licensed as a professional engineer should be a major career goal. Look at all of your potential employment opportunities carefully to be sure they will count toward your licensing experience. It is sometimes difficult to have construction experience apply, so look at it closely and map out a strategy to obtain your P.E. Check with the state board if you have questions about how they view certain experience; each state differs in this area.

David M. Roebuck, P.E., CCM, LEED AP, has been involved in projects in Africa, Europe, South America, the Caribbean, and Central Asia. He is currently working in Afghanistan, providing oversight support for infrastructure projects funded by the U.S. government. He can be reached at

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