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Boys watch the girls

Civil engineering take note. The Government was this week officially concerned about the high performance of girls and the comparatively low achievement of boys at school. Segregated education could be the answer, but it is likely the problem stems from the low career aspirations of today's young men - still, however much we try to change it, construction's main future employment pool.

Civil engineering, as we know, is an extraordinarily male-dominated profession. Of course it is not alone. Look at just about every other profession and it is clear that white middle class males are in charge.

The difference is perhaps that the men heading law, accountancy and the City firms have somehow managed to persuade young girls that they offer aspirational careers. They have developed their businesses and projected an image so strong that schoolgirls are driven to work harder in class.

But as most of these young women will find out, the glass ceiling is in most cases as low as ever. Women face just as much sexual prejudice elsewhere as they do on construction sites, yet construction could offer a more fulfilling career. They just do not know it.

The sad thing for the profession is that civil engineering has never been so exciting and so diverse. The training makes it possible to work in highways design one day, become a rail engineer the next, and an environmental specialist after that.

There is room for more creative talents, communication skills, financial awareness, people skills. Never has the industry been in such a position to appeal to both men and women.

And the profile of the work is moving sky-high. Transport and the environment are now top political priorities, public money has been committed to enable infrastructure to be created on a scale not seen for decades.

It is ironic, even hugely disappointing, that we are already talking and worrying about a shortage of engineers in the UK.

It is time to admit that it is not simply that firms cannot find the staff to do the work. The truth is that firms cannot find the staff to do the jobs they want done for the price they are prepared to pay. And the quicker we stop blaming the industry, the institutions or the universities for failing to attract talented graduates into construction, the better.

A career in civil engineering has to be made attractive, not just to the low-performing boys of the future but also highachieving girls. We are responsible for the most important role in society - not counting cash or keeping the rich out of jail - but designing and delivering the infrastructure to keep society running. That needs to involve the best people.

Rest assured that NCE will continue to help by reporting on the inspirational projects being constructed around the globe. I feel privileged to have inherited the NCE helm at such an exciting time with so much motivation about to make things happen. There is an opportunity for the profession really to take a lead role in shaping our society and I want NCE, the Institution and the whole profession to be at the heart of it.

But I would be letting down the readers, my predecessors and myself if I didn't continue banging the drum about changing the industry. Inspiration is one thing the profession is not short of. But pay, conditions, career development and prospects are still too thin on the ground.

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