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COMMENTARY

THROUGHOUT THIS magazine's 26 year life, the recurring debate on civil engineers' status in society has been linked seemingly inexorably to salary: Or, to be blunt, the consistently low levels of pay they receive compared to people in other professions. So it was refreshing this week for those judging NCE's National Graduate Awards not to hear the word mentioned once as they listened to presentations from this year's finalists.

The competition seeks to reward the brightest and most forward thinking graduates entering the profession. And the roll-call of this year's seven shortlisted candidates was in itself noteworthy as five were female - an encouraging sign given the growing debate over the steepness of the female path to success in our male dominated industry.

But equally noteworthy this week was the infectious enthusiasm exuded by all seven graduates as they told the judges of their pride and excitement as they embarked on their chosen career.

The finalists had already passed the earlier written hurdle of proving they were high fliers academically. Now they had the challenge of demonstrating their verbal communication skills by responding to the question: 'How can engineers demonstrate that they warrant high public esteem?'

All stated emphatically that engineers did deserve better recognition but argued equally strongly that it must be earned not demanded. And they claimed it was generally our own fault that we remained, as one put it, 'back stage technicians' and 'the invisible hand behind the architect'.

But the graduates offered thought provoking ideas on how to move engineers into the spotlight.

To our profession's latest arrivals, senior engineers appeared negative, reticent, or simply unable to effectively promote their own industry. Interaction with schools, even universities, was inadequate; and few engineers had the ability to convince the media they were the solvers of problems like the recent flooding, not the perpetrators they are continually accused of being. 'We have allowed ourselves to be the object of ridicule for so long that we now rarely talk about our work,' claimed one finalist.

If we have the sense to listen to the profession's future leaders, civil engineering remains an exciting and rewarding career. But only when its participants drag themselves out of the site mud and shout about it, will that one missing element of reward - higher salaries - be on the agenda.

Let's hope the seven National Graduate Awards finalists lead the way.

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