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Columnist of the Year Sydney Lenssen The uncaring profession

Most civil engineers have experienced restructuring or privatisation over recent years. Widespread upheavals have made it impossible to aggregate the benefits and losses, or to decide if society has gained. Its clearer for individuals.

By chance I bumped into Ralph Dixon recently, having worked with him briefly in 1995 before a mental breakdown forced him to retire at 55. He was a casualty of the privatisation of the Property Services Agency in 1993. He has recovered enough to allow me to tell his tale.

Ralph had become a civil servant in 1962 following an apprenticeship with Redpath Brown. He spent several years with the Directorate of Civil Engineering Services in Croydon, PSAs elite internal consultancy, sat on several code committees and wrote the PSA specification for guyed masts and towers. The 1974 ICE design award went to his team for the Tolsford Hill Tower in Folkestone. His last post in the PSA was as the head of structural and civil engineering in the London region.

When Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister he was based at Marsham Street close to the political centre and knew earlier than most that PSA was in for change. His own view was that the PSA was unwieldy and might benefit from pruning. He could identify the jewels in the PSAs crown and was confident that their value to government would ensure continuity. But eventually the PSA was sold, lock stock and barrel, whatever the consequences.

Ralph still does not believe that he was worried at that stage; his expertise assured a future for him and his colleagues. When the DoE vendor unit chose Amec and Pell Frischmann as new purchasers, he was comforted by the thought that a consultant would value his track record.

Ralph was among those who wanted to make a go of it in the private sector, and he set to work with gusto. The first 18 months meant sweating to complete the transferred commitments, adjusting to new procedures and searching to win fresh work in a swiftly declining market. Soon 70 and 80 hour weeks were the norm and holidays were ignored.

Then, out of the blue, at a senior management meeting he was told his services were no longer required.

At the same time he was offered a job with Pell Frischmann, and went to the new office gratefully, with an open mind. He never talked about what had gone on.

Another colleague Dr Richard Lamb remembers that Ralph saw himself as starting again. He was rusty at number crunching and often self-critical. He was sometimes inhibited from asking others, sometimes nervous before a design meeting but always well on top of his contribution

A few months later his world collapsed and he never returned.

That weekend he was again working at home, and his wife Jose was away for the day. He was convinced that his calculator was broken, for it refused to give the right answers. Over previous weeks he had grown to be afraid of sleep: when trying to solve the knottiest problems in his dreams, instead of the solutions he usually found there were only further complications. That day he decided he wanted to die, he looked in the medicine chest but fortunately went to bed instead.

For the next four months he was treated with a variety of drugs and went through a period of hell. Ralph learned to accept the help that his wife and family had to give without reserve, perhaps the most vital ingredient to recovery. He remains amazed that most days he functions as a normal human being.

Ralph recognises how protected he was as a civil servant, and financially his family is modestly secure. Compared with many thrown out of work or who have lost their pensions, he is fortunate. Money is not the issue.

Ralph still cannot believe that professional ethics allow people to abruptly kick out others. He cannot understand a society that cares enough to want protection from stalkers, yet still does not insist employers take full care.

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