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A chance to shine


The return of the Iron Chancellor this week presents huge challenges for the engineering profession. But it isn't all bad news.

As feared, the scaling back of over-ambitious growth predictions has ramped up the pressure on the public purse. This will have an inevitable, if not unexpected negative impact on government transport and built environment spending.

The Highways Agency has already flagged up the issue.

More than ever, public sector clients will be looking to the construction industry to deliver greater value for money and more innovative solutions to keep the public realm up and running.

Increasingly the civil engineering profession is being called upon to look beyond the obvious, standard tried and tested solutions to turn good ideas into reality.

The challenge today is less to do with what is technically possible, more to do with delivering solutions that are financially and politically acceptable. If civil engineers are to meet this challenge - and make no mistake we must - we have to embrace this wider remit and respond with the range of skills necessary.

So the good news, as this week's Civil Engineering Manager of the Year Award very positively demonstrates, is that this necessary depth of skills already exists in the profession and across the entire industry.

As a judge in this year's competition it was a privilege to be confronted by four finalists exhibiting a complete range of technical, people and business management skills. And while they were all outstanding individuals, I believe their skills were representative of many of their professional peers.

Each of the four finalists had faced significant engineering challenges. But their success as professionals was less to do with solving the technical challenges - this was a given - but rather their ability to focus effort on the bigger picture of responding to client and business needs.

In all cases that meant breaking away from 'what we normally do' thinking. All had succeeded, after realising that adopting the usual solution would lead to failure. All had had to work hard to communicate their ideas and convince their teams that a different approach could be more successful.

The event was a great reminder that to be successful in civil engineering we must also be successful in business - a satisfi ed client usually leads to commercial reward.

So beyond the gloomy headlines, Brown's anticipated period of public spending austerity could present civil engineers with an opportunity to shine.

Regardless of the level of Treasury cash available, government departments and agencies such as the Highways Agency will always have more ideas and projects than they could ever fund. The need to do more for less is a problem that all successful businesses are well used to solving.

So whether, as an industry, we are offering solutions to road congestion, rail reliability, water supply, regeneration challenges or energy supply, the challenge will always be to break from the norm and give the client a solution that it can afford.

If our current offering is unsustainable or unaffordable it is up to us change our thinking.

As the government purse strings tighten, we forget this at our peril. We are far more credible and useful to society delivering solutions, not waiting for Brown's economy to come good with handouts. And doing so will also keep us in business.

Antony Oliver is NCE's editor

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