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Columnist of the Year Sydney Lenssen Hiding our light

Without wishing to be morbid, twice the number of members as opposed to fellows of the Institution of Civil Engineers die each year - about 200 MICE and 100-120 FICE. This only serves to show that many members cannot be bothered to transfer to the senior grade after gaining the necessary expertise and experience.

In 1997, a mere 79 members successfully transferred to the ICE's premier grade, bringing the fellow total to just over 6,000. Of these about a half are retired and presumably not contributing as much, if at all, to civil engineering as when they were working.

The Cawthra commission looked at membership composition last year and saw a need for a small cadre of senior members of the profession who are recognised as such, and suggested that 'a reasonable target would be that 25% of the corporate membership should be fellows'. The reality was half that.

Who gains what from fellowship? The Institution sees fellowship as an honour, and would like individual engineers to see it as a professional duty to gain the highest grade if they have proven competence. As a learned society it would also benefit from the 30% higher subscriptions charged to fellows. In the early 1990s a survey of potential transferees showed that the main reason for not progressing was shortage of time and effort required to complete the formalities. A drive to encourage transfer saw 363 elevations in 1992 and 303 the following year. They've dropped steadily since.

Another factor bearing on the ICE purse is that until 10 years ago roughly one in three fellows were retired, but today they number only 50%, because the recession saw a steep increase in members and fellows taking early retirement. Retired fellows or members pay 10% subscriptions - usually £13 - plus an extra £25 if they want to continue reading NCE. Not everyone takes advantage: some continue paying, others drop out altogether.

Those engineers nominated successfully for the Royal Academy of Engineering gain a higher accolade of professional achievement. This pinnacle covers all engineering disciplines. It is now just over 20 years old, set up to do for engineers what The Royal Society does for scientists. Around 1,000 engineers hold the fellowship of engineering at any one time; a maximum of 60 new fellows is invited in each year.

The Academy splits engineering into four disciplines, mechanical, electrical, civil and process, and I am told nominations divide roughly as you would expect and there is no shortage of entrants.

In 1994, one of the most progressive moves made by the Academy was to introduce four Silver Medal awards given to outstanding engineers under the age of 50 years whose contribution to British engineering has led to successful market exploitation. The scheme has all the right ingredients: it encourages younger engineers, should identify gifted talent early, and eventually will help to reduce the average age of RAE fellows. Most importantly, winners still have time to exploit their recognition with further achievements.

Last year no silver medals went to civil or structural engineers. The civils have always entered far less than their numbers merit - this year only 8% of nominations. In three years, two medals went to civil engineers and one of those was not in the ICE or IStructE.

Dr Duncan Michael, chairman of Arup, leads the awards committee and Michael Muller, ex-Atkins, is another civil engineer on the eight strong panel. They lament the dearth of civils entries, both are convinced that suitable medal winners are there, but nobody seems to take the trouble to nominate.

Of course it's not really British to flaunt yourself and all of us are reluctant to boast. But if the profession really wants to get a message across to a reluctant public, then its senior successful engineers do need to polish and blow their trumpets.

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