Late last year I became aware of 'The Civil Engineers' Channel' for the first time, the video training method produced by TEN, the television education network. Several engineers in the office wanted the firm to subscribe - it costs about £1,000 for six issues a year including the accompanying loose-leaf study pack - and gave me a couple of tapes to try.
Each edition takes time to work through and I've now done three. In the process I've learnt a lot and also concluded that this approach to training is an effective way to stimulate continuous professional development as well as helping graduates and technicians to progress.
For all the hype about quality of training when recruiting, my experience is that many engineers are left to their own devices. In this age of competition, job needs take precedence over planned formation. The training received by my son in his first three years with Price Waterhouse makes construction's efforts look pathetic, and the only excuse I can find is that our margins are too low. The TEN approach offers some hope.
The annual series contains up to 48 separate programmes depending on the option you choose, and the core consists of a news review, health and safety, construction regulations, law, project management and professional issues. Additional programmes deal with geotechnics, IT and business topics as well as the technical areas you would expect such as environment, water, energy, marine engineering and transportation.
You will only get out as much as you are prepared to put in, but the secret of TEN is the quality of discussion generated in the group watching.
I've contacted several offices for feedback. Typically lunchtime sessions are organised, attended by around a dozen people, graduates and technicians plus one or two senior engineers. One person introduces the topic and chairs any debate. All offices report that the first sessions were crowded, but soon reduced to a keen group attracted to learning about matters outside their own experience.
Some programmes leave topics half-answered or provide only basic information. Blame time. I was impressed by the quality of presentation, the graphics and the range of topics. It is not easy to perform on TV, as some interviewees prove. But polish is not what's required. The programmes offer focused stimulation.
This form of video training was pioneered in Australia by Robert Clemente, a lawyer who saw a requirement in that profession. For UK civil engineers, most credit is due to Julie Wilkinson who has been the producer since the launching of the Civil Engineers' Channel. She graduated 10 years ago and is chartered, having worked with Atkins and Balfour Beatty. Her last job on site was on the Second Severn Bridge approach roads, and the prospect of returning to the design office plus a small ad in NCE lured her into television.
Then and now she positively bubbles with enthusiasm. As producer her job is to think up topics and identify the people who might appear and who can supply the expertise. Then she organises the locations for filming, writes scripts, sometimes directs the recordings, edits the results and organises the training pack, all helped by one other full timer, researcher Damian Crean. The rest of the team is part time.
Hugh Ferguson, Thomas Telford's managing director, says the ICE considered video training but wasn't convinced about viability. He credits TEN's success with the fact that the company is production led: they know how to make video programmes. Others need to hire production crews and that gets too expensive.
Around 500 civil offices subscribe, which gives an income well short of what is needed for a fraction of one episode of a TV costume drama. What Wilkinson has to spend is hardly lavish. New digital equipment helps to achieve professional results.
Initial marketing three years ago suggested TEN might win 550 civil engineering sales, and marketing manager Chris Bunyan claims one in four firms employing more than 20 people pay for the service. Seven out of 10 subscribers are civil and structural consultants, with another 20% from local authorities. Engineers working for contractors may be more isolated, but it is a pity so few have caught on.
This column does not normally endorse products or services, but I have no hesitation in recommending those who have yet to try the Civil Engineers' Channel to suck it and see.