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Why Sector Knowledge is an Absolute Must in Highways

I love my industry. Many people know I fell into highways after training to be a drama teacher. I fell into it and never left because I love the subject, the people, and making a difference to the companies I work with. We recently received a testimonial from a client that said: “Experienced team with a good understanding of highways surfacing, which doesn’t happen too often with bid writers”. Another one said “….industry knowledge on highways/civils is particularly useful for us”. They reminded me why sector expertise is crucial in my line of work. Adding value through highways sector knowledge ensures my clients are winning, their companies growing, and their staff remaining employed.


Transferable skills?

I’ve always said my skills are transferable – I’ve worked across many industries, proving just that – but highways is difficult if you don’t understand the terminology and technicalities. Yes, bidding skills are transferable, but nothing beats sitting in a contracting office, chewing the fat with the operational team, and really helping them to shape their ideas in response to a tough bid question.

Most bid professionals will say that is easy if you know your craft and know how to answer questions. But highways is more than that. Highways people are a different breed. And highways people don’t want bid writers to look blankly at them when they are discussing a methodology using simple highways terminology. My clients need help with solutions as much as they need help with the bid, and to do that, you need to understand how to build a road, how to maintain that road, and how to address what their client is looking for. And it’s not just the technicalities of roads, there are other things too – NEC contracts for example. Understanding these contracts is critical when disseminating bid requirements in highways, understanding the nuances of how the contract works and where there might be pitfalls.

Strategic Proposals’ recent research backs me up in their September 2023 ‘Buyers Guide to Bidding’. When they asked about things to avoid, one of the highlighted responses from buyers was “Using bid writers who don’t know the needs of our organisation but are good at writing”. Enough said!


Adding Value

Smaller Pipster clients can be like a rabbit in headlights when it comes to bidding. They know their craft but bid documents scare them silly and they don’t know where to start. Ah yes, say all trained bid people, we can help as we know bidding! And yes, to a certain degree that is true, but can you coach them to have a richer story through your understanding of highways, what their clients are looking for, where the best innovations come from, or the key issues in highways today? I know you can’t, because I can, and this is because I understand my subject. I’ve lived and breathed it for over twenty years.

We will never be ‘parachute’ bid writers, dropping in and buggering off at the end of the bid to never be seen again. We know our craft, we know our subject, and we build relationships to become vital parts of our clients’ teams. We are in it for the long haul.


Where are the highways writers?

We have so much work at the moment, and it just keeps coming. Unfortunately I am struggling to find the bid writers I need.

I am lucky to have some wonderful freelancers who I can call on, but the associate model does not fit with the Pipster vision – we pride ourselves on getting involved with our clients as a team, building relationships, and becoming integral to our client’s growth. My freelancers are wonderful writers, very knowledgeable about highways, and I trust them with my clients implicitly, but they have their own way of doing things. I want to build a team of Pipster employees who live and breathe highways bids for our clients.

When highways companies employ bid staff, they have the luxury of teaching their new bid staff the technical side over a period of time. When they come to me as a consultant, they need us to have this highways knowledge already, so we don’t waste time. As a very small company, I can only afford to have one apprentice every two years to teach and train the technical aspects of highways from the beginning, even though I would love to do more.

I am now starting to think about reverse recruitment – hiring people from highways that I can teach how to write – because they will be able to converse with our clients in a language that is understood. Is that possible? I’m not sure, but it’s worth a go.

This article was written by Pippa Birch.

Pippa owns Pipster Solutions Ltd – an award-winning bid consultancy. Pippa has been a bid writer for over 20 years, mainly in highways and civil engineering. She is well known in the sector and is an active member of the Institute of Asphalt and has won several industry awards. Pippa went freelance in 2012 and started growing the Pipster team during the Covid pandemic. She is APMP Professional certified and mentors other bid professionals, winning Contribution to the Profession in 2022. She also developed #ThursdayThrong and #BidBites – free online meetings for the bidding community to reduce isolation.

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