How good are civil engineers at their jobs? And how easily can each of them prove they have the skills and training to enable them to practice today?
These are questions that will soon require more care and thought as engineers seek to comply with upcoming changes to the ICE’s professional review process.
Last month ICE members voted to back a move to make recording of continuing professional development (CPD) compulsory – currently it is only completed on a voluntary basis – in line with recommendations from the Engineering Council. The changes also mean that civil engineers will be obligated to record any CPD they have undertaken, so that it can be audited.
54,197 Number of practising ICE members
On the one hand, the proposals could be seen as an enforced move toward greater regulation of existing procedures. Something that is in its own right “a challenge”, says ICE membership director Seán Harris.
On the other hand, influential industry figureheads are calling on the ICE to embrace this top-down Engineering Council recommendation and run further with it.
“The assumption that a professional qualification once attained qualifies a civil engineer to practice for life is simply untenable in a fast-changing world, with greater expectations by clients and the public of up-to-date professional competence,” says the just-published ICE-commissioned ICE Professional Skills report.
“In our view, the ICE’s current voluntary CPD model is not an adequate means of assurance.”
And so, the ICE must go further and urgently review its professional accreditation process, the panel behind the report insisted.
The assumption that a professional qualification once attained qualifies a civil engineer to practice for life is simply untenable
While the panel did not go so far as to offer specific solutions to the potential problems thrown up by the changes, ICE vice-president Ed McCann, who led the review, says that the way training is undertaken must now be scrutinised.
“One of the key things I find unconvincing about CPD is that for most people, a couple of weeks after a training day, they’ll have forgotten what they’ve learned,” he says.
A simple certificate issued on attendance at any such event is meaningless when it comes to what is acted on. Instead, people should be more accountable for their learning, according to McCann.
“I’m a big advocate of people being tested [after the training],” he says. “It shouldn’t be just an attendance thing.”
He says the panel believes that the difficulty will come in delivering these changes without greater resource deployed at any level – for which there is no appetite. Instead it should be a case of employers adapting existing mechanisms, and working with the ICE to determine how auditing will be conducted. This should be achievable given that the “vast majority” of engineers are employed in big corporates which already have adaptable systems in place, McCann elaborates.
At the report’s launch, ICE director general Nick Baveystock said that alongside the procedural changes, now was the right time to take a closer look at the profession, particularly given the concurrent reviews of the profession being undertaken by Dame Hackitt and ICE past president Peter Hansford.
“The nature of the engineer may or may not be changing,” said Baveystock. “But we, at least, needed to do some analysis.”
That analysis – contributed to by the results of a members’ survey – threw up some interesting results; namely, that concerns about a perceived lack of digital and technical skills in the industry were less prominent than fears that there is a dearth of the less engineering-centric soft skills that are also critical to today’s civils businesses.
“Perhaps surprisingly, lack of digital skills was seen as a much smaller area of concern: this may have been partly because members were responding on improvements in skills needed for today’s challenges, rather than in the future,” the report says.
Employers ranked judgement and decision making, critical thinking and time management higher in importance than traditional “science” skills, says the report.
“We were struck by the relatively low importance given to science … which seems in stark contrast to the importance given to these activities in formal education both at school and in universities,” says the review.
So, while the profession faces the challenge of how to prove to clients and the wider world that practising engineers are qualified and competent, the gauntlet has also been thrown down for academia.
“In general, the education system treats soft skills as complementary and less important than technical skills,” says the report. It goes further, levelling criticism at the overwhelming bias within undergraduate degrees toward civil engineering for the construction of large pieces of infrastructure.
By contrast little is being taught about the specific skills that are deployed by the vast number of civil engineers in operating and maintaining, renewing and adapting, and decommissioning existing infrastructure, it points out.
In our view, the ICE’s current voluntary CPD model is not an adequate means of assurance
The failing is not limited to the world of academia, however, and the review panel urges the ICE to develop and implement a plan to improve all civil engineers’ skills related to these specific areas.
Part of the answer will come in how effectively the ICE co-ordinates with academia – and ultimately employers – on the initial qualification, and subsequent training, of engineers. The panel says it hopes the ICE will take the lead and convene meetings involving all parties at a national and strategic level to effect curriculum and training changes, as industry needs adapt.
In the meantime, High Speed 2 design director Kate Hall has raised the possibility that the ICE could make moves to effect change more informally and could branch out in its efforts to connect renowned and revered engineering figureheads with academia. Without getting bogged down in bureaucratic curriculum changes, eminent professionals could do visiting professorships and touring lectures to impart unique industry experience and help develop the broadest range of skills required of new engineers.
Harris said that while there are mechanisms to connect leading engineers with academia for special lectures, there was sometimes little appetite to take up the offer by academics. The worry for some is that while reviews often give insight into problems in the industry’s skills base, their solutions are less evident. And while everyone tries to figure out what to do, technologies and the work of civil engineers, continue to evolve.
Read the full ICE Professional Skills Review here