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Civils at the crossroads

Future of the profession; NCE's relaunch is underpinned by the most ambitious research programme ever undertaken into what civil engineers do and think. Based on feedback from 1500 individual engineers, the findings reveal a profession both inspired and u

One message above all rang out from NCE's research. The era in which civil engineers were largely involved with the design and/or construction of new structures is over.

The most conservative estimate suggests that two out of every 10 engineers have little if anything to do with the design or construction of civil engineering or building structures. A more realistic view suggests the number is nearer three or even four.

In hindsight this is no surprise. The UK has a mature infrastructure and the constant calls to make the best of what we have are not simply designed to appease environmentalists and the Treasury.

This is not necessarily bad news. Many civils firms have shown that engineering skills are just as adaptable as those possessed by accountants, lawyers and other construction disciplines when it comes to managing infrastructure.

Greater involvement in operation (including maintenance) also gives civil engineers the opportunity to deepen their understanding of fitness for purpose.

Civil engineering clearly has a future as a profession, but its nature and shape could well be decided over the next decade. The big question for civil engineers is what makes the discipline unique? What is the civil engineer's USP (unique selling point)? ICE vice-president Mark Whitby has already suggested one new role model - the urban engineer (NCE 7 October) - but others will be needed and the fragmentation of civil engineering into a dozen or so 'niche' disciplines is a definite possibility. Many of the civil engineers NCE talked to believe this has already happened.

The feeling of a profession at the crossroads comes through time and again.

One of the clear signals is that civil engineers feel a pressing need to improve commercial and management skills. While at present information on 'technical methods' and 'project management' are prioritised, the skills required for future development are neither technical or specific to civil engineering. Design and process (site) management seem set to be overtaken in importance by roles such as business development and staff management.

There are many reasons for these trends, including:

career development leading to management roles

the importance of issues like budget control in an increasingly competitive market

weaknesses in civil engineering education

a desire to create a more motivational and attractive environment for staff, therefore retaining key skills and the brightest brains

the shrinking size of the traditional civils market and the need to reach new markets or find different ways of serving old ones

the need to counter the skills of competitors from other disciplines.

However, the greatest motivation to develop commercial and managerial skills is the ever growing demands of clients. Very few civil engineers now work in an environment where they are serving the needs of 'the user'. Their master is 'the customer', a much more demanding, if not necessarily more effective, relationship.

Monopolies are being eroded and where they still exist, as with Railtrack, a strict regulatory regime recreates much of the pressures of the free market economy. In the local authority sector Best Value may not be as blunt an instrument as CCT, but commercial pressures will not go away.

Client liaison is now established as a core activity for civil engineers and the changing demands of clients are more influential than, say, technical or professional trends within the discipline itself.

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