Growth in international projects and key frameworks with Network Rail and the Highways Agency are generating a big demand for bridge engineers in design and asset management.
The bridge engineering sector is remarkably buoyant at the moment,” says Aecom bridges and structures lead for Europe John Longthorne.
“We’ve seen growth of 30%, not only in the UK but also internationally.”
On the one hand, Longthorne attributes a sizeable proportion of the growth to significant investment by Network Rail under it its Control Period 5 (CP5) delivery plan and to the Highways Agency spending through its collaborative delivery framework (CDF). “The government has definitely got an agenda to improve transport infrastructure,” he says.
On the other hand he says he is seeing an increasing number of schemes where bridges are used as a focal point for regeneration or as landmarks. He cites Aecom’s recent involvement in the design of the highly symbolic Peace Bridge in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, as a prime example of the former while he thinks clients with deep pockets in places like the Middle East want bridges that push the envelope in terms of design.
The advantage of landmark projects is that they provide graduates and new recruits with stimulating and glamorous work, but Mark Valentine who is regional director, north at Opus International Consultants says new bridge engineers with his firm can also expect to perform asset management duties.
Like Aecom, Opus was successful in securing one of five slots on Network Rail’s Civil Assessment Framework, which has begun with bridge inspection and assessment work.
“The work we’re doing for these people ranges from high level asset management policy through to all forms of design,” says Valentine.
“We’re also trying to join some of our associated skills. For instance, we have a subsidiary which does laser scanning and measured surveys and they’re helping us to perform cloud scans of structures and bridges more efficiently.”
“We don’t separate highway bridges and rail bridges into separate teams, we work across both. When it comes to resilience, it helps if our engineers can work across sectors”
Graham Slade, WSP
Similarly, WSP technical director for structures Graham Slade says a large element of the work with his firm is about applying engineering judgement to modify or strengthen existing bridges where there is limited knowledge about the structure. He too tries to get his team to apply themselves to a diverse set of duties.
“We don’t separate highway bridges and rail bridges into separate teams, we work across both,” he says.
“When it comes to resilience, it helps if our engineers can work across sectors.”
Slade says there is no simple template for the type of people he is looking to recruit but says the thing that all of the best bridge engineers have in common is good analytical skills and the ability to solve the practical problems of constructing and repairing structures.
Longthorne agrees: “A bridge engineer is bridge engineer,” he says. “A structural engineer can turn their hand to anything and we shouldn’t put things into boxes.”
Both he and Valentine like the fact that most graduates are now “highly technical” while school students are increasingly studying A-Levels with an ICT module.
“We find they are coming out of university with the right skill sets,” says Longthorne. “We have to give them the correct guidance and add in our experience of structural analysis. They’re computer literate and we can give them the engineering knowledge.”