We talk a great deal in the industry about the need for government to commit investment to drive infrastructure projects. Less prominent is the need to secure similar focus on the industry’s bigger shop window - the management of the nation’s existing assets.
News this week that Network Rail is under fire from the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) over the need to “improve the resilience of Britain’s railways” or face substantial fines underlines this point.
The four year high in broken rails identified by the ORR on the London North Eastern Route is against a general network downward trend but it is clearly a critical issue. So is the more general need for Network Rail to boost efforts to cope with adverse weather to turn around the dip in long distance punctuality.
This story sits alongside our coverage of local authorities as they wrestle with maintaining a heavily used and vital road network in the face of swingeing public sector cuts.
In both cases there are no easy answers. The solutions will require innovation from across the public and private sector supply chains - and that will mean bringing in the best engineering talent.
And it is here that we face a problem. Asset management remains something of a downmarket career option in civil engineering.
“Most civil engineers will build careers around the hugely important task of keeping our transport, water and energy networks going “
Major projects such as Crossrail, High Speed 2 and Hinkley Point C tend to grab the headlines and sit prominently on the calling cards of civil engineering employers as they attempt to recruit the best talent. The aspiration to build new is confirmed relentlessly.
Yet the reality is that most civil engineers will actually build careers around the less glamorous but hugely important - and growing - task of keeping our transport, water and energy networks going.
The challenge for the profession will be to find the right number of talented engineers to take on this vital role. Engineers who can not only understand the technical needs of running networks but also bring new ideas to fund them.
This point is demonstrated by the deal to double the size of asset management specialist Amey following its purchase of Enterprise this week. The firm will now employ around 21,000 people.
Having committed to invest in its staff so that 3% of employees are either on graduate training or apprenticeship schemes, it faces the not insubstantial challenge of finding hundreds of talented new people each year.
As chief executive Mel Ewell points out, the solution will require a major focus on “talent development” to produce the new skills and techniques required for a “whole life asset approach”.
The solution for Amey and for the whole industry will be to continue to professionalise asset management. Only then will we ensure that civil engineering is the true destination for talent that it needs to be.