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2009 Graduate Awards: the future is here

NCE’s Graduate Awards were handed out last week to six young civil engineers. David Hayward profiles the winners.

This year, more than ever, NCE and its team of 15 top company sponsors thought it vital to encourage the profession’s young graduate civil engineers as they enter an industry still nervous and facing financial challenges.

So it was encouraging that a near record 120 of them chose to enter our annual Graduate Awards, aimed this year at rewarding construction’s best all-round civil engineers who graduated in 2008.

A group of senior engineers from the sponsoring companies have judged them all and subjected the top six to gruelling interviews. And at last week’s awards lunch, in the ICE’s Great Hall, over 150 of our industry’s current leaders gathered to praise the winners.

Overall Graduate of the Year, 24 year old Arup structural engineer James O’Donnell, was described by the judges as “oozing enthusiasm and passion”. He was handed the top £1,000 prize and a specially crafted trophy.

Two joint runners up each won £500 and three highly commended entrants received £250.

Winners celebrate

High profile: BBC’s Justin Webb presented the awards

High profile: BBC’s Justin Webb presented the awards

The Great Hall of the ICE was an appropriate venue for this year’s NCE Graduate Awards presented last week.

Over 200 guests watched as the six winners shared prize money totalling £2,700 The finalists had been chosen from a record 120-strong entry list and had then been interviewed by judges from the award’s sponsoring companies.

The 2009 NCE Graduate Awards are sponsored by; Aecom, Amey, Arup, Atkins, BAA, Balfour Beatty, Black & Veatch, Capita Symonds, The ICE, Mott MacDonald, Parsons Brinckerhoff, Ranstad, Skanska, Transport for London and WSP Group.

Chairman of judges, Arup consultant, Richard Haryott

Chairman of judges, Arup consultant, Richard Haryott

Chairman’s comments

Paul Jowitt, in his excellent and thought provoking inaugural address as the ICE president, reminded society at large − and engineers in particular − that “now is the time”. Even though economic turmoil is forcing even the most forward thinking and robust businesses to temper some of their investment plans, there is every reason for engineers to be optimistic.

Now is indeed the time. There has never been greater need for investment in our infrastructure to create a society that can prosper without depleting scarce resources.

The need to create new sources of non fossil fuel energy, to meet the demand of a growing world population, the need for clean water and sanitation and for better transport infrastructure is clear.

None of these challenges can be met without skilled engineers, so now is the time for optimism and investment in the next generation of engineers, to create the new skills we will need.

Once again, the NCE Graduate Awards’ judges were given ample evidence that the talent is there. And the six finalists were excellent. This year we asked entrants to write a short essay recommending what graduates, who were finding it difficult to find a job should do. And we also sought their advice to employers to ensure the potential pool of talent does not evaporate.

They felt that graduates must not give up, but rather be more proactive in seeking opportunities in areas of growing need, even if outside their preferred specialisation.

We are in the worst economic crisis for many years. But the need for new skills, and for growing supply of fresh talent, is greater than ever. The judges could clearly see that this talent is there. Let us celebrate that and be optimistic.

  • Chairman of judges, Arup consultant, Richard Haryott



James O’Donnell

NCE Graduate Awards 2009 winner James O’Donnell

NCE Graduate Awards 2009 winner James O’Donnell

White knuckle rides the Hulk and Spider Man − centrepieces of Florida’s Universal Studios − will soon receive repeated patronage from our Graduate of the Year James O’Donnell.

His honeymoon to the Sunshine State next spring will now be extended, courtesy of his £1,000 prize, and fiancée Lisa apparently shares his passion for extreme rollercoasters.

Competing for our winner’s passion is the “privilege” he feels in working with a range of professionals designing potentially iconic buildings. The 24 year old Arup structural engineer reckons his joint civil and architectural course at Bath University taught him the need to appreciate, and work as a single team with, other engineering disciplines.

“At Arup I sit alongside architects from the outset of a design brief,” he says. “And we have the bonus of widely experienced senior directors for advice.”

His appreciation of architects is tempered only when it comes to team leaders. “It can be the efficiency of the structural solution that steers the architectural concept and drives a project forward,” he claims. “More often than not civil engineers have the expertise, and the right, to lead the design team.”

He will not find many Arup directors to seek advice from on the beaches of Bournemouth, Cornwall or Florida. But this has not stopped our winner revelling in the enjoyment of sandcastles.

Asked on his award entry form why he wanted to be a civil engineer, O’Donnell was unashamed to admit that, as an eight year old, he had spent endless days during seaside holidays building complex sand structures. What did embarrass him now, he wrote, was the admission that he is still building them at every possible opportunity.

“I love creating structural shapes in sand and imagining them as great exotic buildings,” he says.

Helped at school by repeated involvement with the Royal Academy of Engineering, who invited him to Dartmoor field courses and educational weekends, O’Donnell’s route to civil engineering never wavered.

“I owe the Academy a lot,” he says. “They even sent me on a week’s course to a mystery university which turned out to be Bath, so I later applied to study there.”

His five-year university course included two, six month industry periods. His first, with Laing O’Rourke at Heathrow’s Terminal 5, saw the 20 year old setting out a complex, four-level, snaking car ramp. And months of 5am wake-up alarm calls prompted him to advise our panel of experienced, senior engineer judges “not to waste the weekends”.

His second industrial placement, in an Arup office calculating the wind loading on a large double-curved roof, cemented his love of structural design. And, with a first class MEng under his belt, he returned to Arup’s building division.

“I now wake up every morning − a bit later than 5am − thinking that I could be solving another major design problem today,” he enthuses.

Away from the day job, O’Donnell is a keen ICE schools’ ambassador transferring at least some of his engineering passion to hundreds of school children aged from 12 to 17. Yet after numerous triathlons and half marathons to keep him fit, our graduate superstar is happiest running back to the office to oversee his latest design challenge.

He has already led the structural design of a £26M complex-shaped detention centre near Heathrow and, with construction underway, he now heads up Arup’s involvement on site.

“Confident, calm and balanced” is how his Arup training director describes feedback from the project’s client. “Such talents mirror those of a good, perhaps exceptional engineer,” he said. The judges agreed, summing up our winner as “oozing enthusiasm and passion. He is well balanced and engaging with a genuine thirst for knowledge,” they concluded.

  • Graduate structural engineer, Arup
  • First class MEng Bath University
  • ICE schools’ ambassador
  • Loves building complex sandcastles


Joint runner-up

Chris Lloyd

NCE Graduate Awards 2009 winner Chris Lloyd

NCE Graduate Awards 2009 joint runner-up Chris Lloyd

Two weeks locked away in his father’s garden shed, the then 14 year old built a 3m scale model of the Eiffel Tower, followed a year later by another week crawling all over a sewage works during school work experience. These proved the two eureka moments for Chris Lloyd.

“I knew then exactly what I wanted to be,” he recalls. “Civil engineering has already lived up to my aspirations as a career that offers unrivalled work satisfaction and a profession that can make a real difference to people’s lives.” On leaving school he wasted no time in developing that career. He deferred his place at Cambridge University and took a gap year. But it was not the usual backpacking student style year off.

Instead he won a grant from the Smallpeice Engineering Trust and spent the time surveying, CAD programming and learning basic construction skills.

At Cambridge his enthusiasm was channelled into bridge design − a sector he is now embedded in with employer Halcrow. “To me these vital, yet elegant, structures epitomise what civil engineering is all about,” he says.

University lectures were balanced with a range of sporting activities. As a keen rower he spent much of his time during the first ever Oxford and Cambridge cross channel boat race bailing out seawater to avoid sinking. He has less time now for first team soccer, rugby or squash but still puts in the weekend hours as a qualified football referee.

Even that recreation is temporarily threatened as his day job with Halcrow currently sees the 24 year old based in Holland spearheading key design work on his company’s tender for a £100M motorway bridge. Halcrow was kind enough to day-trip him back to the UK twice just to compete in this competition.

“The responsibility I have been given in Holland is the pinnacle of my first year’s involvement in a dozen bridge designs,” he says.

Asked how this year’s workstarved new civils graduates can be helped to remain enthusiastic, Lloyd urges the government to adopt two measures that few budding engineers would not applaud. “Construction acts as such a vital catalyst for economic growth that the government,” he argues “should encourage our struggling graduates by writing off their student loans and offering them tax reductions.”

“Inspirational, talented and a passionate high achiever − already the finished article,” said the judges.

  • Graduate civil engineer, Halcrow
  • First class MEng, Cambridge University
  • Spent pre-uni gap year studying engineering
  • Cross channel rower and qualified football referee


Joint runner-up

Owen Jones

NCE Graduate Awards 2009 joint runner-up Owen Jones

NCE Graduate Awards 2009 joint runner-up Owen Jones

Car journeys for a young Owen Jones and his family tended to be longer than necessary, courtesy of his early yearning to see construction underway.

From the age of 10 he would use television’s teletext to map out for his father the planned route of day trips and deliberately include as many roadworks as possible.

“I just loved watching things being built,” says the now 23 year old graduate civil engineer with Laing O’Rourke. “And I chose contracting from the outset so I could be involved with a team actually seeing a project through on site.”

He recalls selecting his university − Imperial − the same way and deliberately not applying for the initially more general engineering courses offered by the Oxbridge system. “I wanted to study civils from day one and Imperial offered a very practical syllabus” he says.

Sponsored at university by Laing O’Rourke and an ICE Quest scholarship, Jones won one of just four coveted Centenary prizes offered to the entire 400 strong civils department during Imperial’s 2007 anniversary year.

Early involvement with the ICE’s London Graduates and Students committee saw him becoming a schools’ ambassador and also setting up a still fl ourishing annual bridge building competition for any kind of design so long as it was made of paper.

As a keen percussionist he played kettle drums for the university orchestra and still found time to climb around 60, 900m plus Munro style mountains.

Graduating with a 2:1 MEng, Jones deferred immediate employment with Laing O’Rourke for a post-university gap year.

He headed straight for Australia, cold called local Laing O’Rourke directors and was offered four month’s research work. His study of the greenhouse gasses difference between moving bulk materials short distances by either transport of on vast conveyors, was regarded as ground breaking in this fast-growing Australian market sector.

Starting full time work a few months ago, Jones was sent to the company’s £300M Manchester metro contract to work on an extension to Salford Quays. “It’s already my dream job,” he says. “It offered me teamwork and real responsibility from day one.”

“He is an enthusiastic and very employable young engineer,” said the judges “charismatic and determined”.

  • Graduate civil engineer, Laing O’Rourke
  • 2:1 MEng Imperial College
  • Won Imperial Centenary prize for high achievement
  • Keen mountaineer climbing 60, 900m plus peaks


Highly commended

David Rowlinson

NCE Graduate Awards 2009 highly commended David Rowlinson

NCE Graduate Awards 2009 highly commended David Rowlinson

Had it not been for the random lunch time seating arrangements on a cruise ship to Istanbul, the then 16 year old David Rowlinson might never have become a civil engineer.

Two weeks chatting across the table to a stranger − by chance a Hyder civil engineer − left young Rowlinson “convinced what he wanted to become”.

Rowing and playing rugby for his Oxford university college offered a rest from studying, helped further by becoming a qualified rowing coach.

His onboard encounter paid dividends for, unearthing the stranger’s crumpled business card, undergraduate Rowlinson won a Hyder and ICE Quest university scholarship. After gaining a 2:1 MEng, he joined Hyder’s transportation division and is amazed at the variety of assignments he has been allowed to tackle.

Projects have ranged from the redesign of small rail crossings to structural analysis of Warrington’s busiest road bridge. This workload doubtless infl uenced Hyder’s decision to place Rowlinson on the company’s top graduates scheme and he was immediately decanted from Warrington to London to join a three-man team bidding for the design of a £40M Crossrail station.

A further milestone will be the approaching accolade of next year becoming, at 24, the UK’s youngest ICE branch committee chairman, won in competition with chartered engineers offering 20 years’ experience. Central to his success was his work last year as a regional ICE apprentice.

A prime apprenticeship task was to create a new strapline explaining to the public the role of his profession. The result: Designing, constructing and developing today, for a better, cleaner and greener tomorrow. Thisis civil engineering became an instant success and has been distributed widely to educational bodies.

“Engineering has become so specialised we miss the big picture and are poor at promoting our profession,” he claims. “Instead of simply explaining that we design structures vital to daily life, we drone on about stresses and bending moments.”

“Well structured and driven, a mature thinking self-starter,” said the judges.

  • Graduate civil engineer Hyder Consulting
  • 2:1 MEng Oxford University
  • Soon to become the UK’s youngest ICE branch committee chairman
  • Chosen for Hyder’s accelerated graduate scheme


Highly commended

Raghuraj Pandya

NCE Graduate Awards 2009 highly commended Raghuraj Pandya

NCE Graduate Awards 2009 highly commended Raghuraj Pandya

Raghuraj Pandya’s thoughts of becoming a civil engineer changed from possible to definite when he was caught up in a major 2001 earthquake killing 20,000 inhabitants of his home state Gujarat, western India.

As a 17 year old student he worked with rescue teams for several days and realised, he says “that a doctor usually saves one life at a time but a good civil engineer, able to design earthquake resistant buildings, can save thousands.”

Within a year he was studying civil engineering at Ahmedabad University. By the time he had graduated five years later, the conclusions of two of his design projects were being given serious attention by the local city council.

His analysis of improving the city’s traffic flow, by redesigning the street grid and installing traffic lights, has now helped reduce congestion. And implementation of his study on local flood alleviation, by river desilting and removing slum housing from flood plains, has, he claims, eased what had been an annual problem.

A move to the UK and gaining an MSc in concrete engineering and environmental management at Dundee University equipped him to spearhead the organisation of a 450 delegate conference at the university on sustainable concrete construction.

Joining Atkins as a graduate tunnelling engineer has led to him completing feasibility studies for London Underground’s upgrade plans and of major services tunnels beneath the 2012 Olympics Park.

Away from work he has organised lectures and workshops for the local ICE Graduates and Students committee. But it was another activity − one that he admits to be almost as passionate about as civil engineering − that fascinated the judges.

Since he was a teenager, Pandya has been an avid amateur financial advisor managing the investment portfolios of family and friends.

“I study the markets daily but have no desire to become a professional financier, ” he says. “Bankers take money from one person and give it to another.”

Instead Pandya thinks civil engineers should themselves be more financially astute and raise there own funds for the things they create. “As Brunel did,” he adds.

“Confident, ambitious and very financially aware,” concluded the judges.

  • Graduate tunnelling engineer Atkins
  • Bachelor of Engineering, Ahmedabad University; MSc Dundee University
  • Contributed to both traffic and flood relief solutions in Indian city
  • Keen amateur financial advisor


Highly commended

Natalie Ward

NCE Graduate Awards 2009 highly commended Natalie Ward

NCE Graduate Awards 2009 highly commended Natalie Ward

If all the country’s civil engineers stopped work for a few weeks, Britain’s daily lifestyle would soon start to collapse. This is the claim 24 year old Natalie Ward uses to describe the importance of her profession to a public “largely ignorant of what civil engineers do.”

From her first few days at Strathclyde University, aged just 17, she began extolling the vital role of civil engineers to just about anyone who would listen.

As an ICE ambassador, she estimates she has talked to upward of 600 school kids. And in her continuing involvement with local and national ICE committees − culminating in a few years time as chair of the National Graduates and Students committee − she organises lectures, debates and conferences.

It was hearing, as a 15 year old school girl, about the killing powers of poor quality water supplies in developing countries, and how civil engineers could provide the cure, that first triggered her interest in engineering. Just two years later, as a fresher undergraduate at Strathclyde, she was receiving the first of half a dozen major civils department prizes for academic excellence.

Ward was the top student, or thereabouts, among her 70 strong class, for each of her five years at Strathclyde, before she emerged with a first class MEng.

“Energetic, driven and academically very smart,” said the judges.

  • Graduate civil engineer, Halcrow
  • First class MEng Strathclyde University
  • Top civils undergraduate winning six major academic prizes
  • Future chair of ICE National Graduates & Students committee

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