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Debate | Widening the skills appeal

The profession is changing. Civils teams are now made up of a vibrant mix of disciplines – a far cry from the traditional teams of engineers, designers and quantity surveyors of the past. 

Recognising this, the ICE is embarking on a historic ballot, urging its members to vote to “open its doors” and broaden the Associate Member grade to encompass a wider range of allied professionals.

To explore this theme further New Civil Engineer, together with NCE100 Talent Champion award winner Costain, hosted a round table to discuss how the industry was changing and debate how the profession must develop in the future to attract non-engineers. Around the table were professionals who entered civil engineering through a host of non-traditional routes including a former bouncer, a baker, graduates of philosophy, sports science and zoology, and even a former receptionist.

 Is there a skills crisis?

“The issue of skills is something we are always grappling with, but I don’t think we should jump on the bandwagon of there being a skills crisis,” kicked off Costain managing director for infrastructure Darren James.  “While we think there is a skills challenge, it only turns into a crisis if people don’t do the right thing to meet the challenge” 

“We need to ask ourselves what we need to be in the civil engineering and construction industry. You don’t necessarily need to be a civil engineer with a triple honours degree. There are other ways into the industry, and so many other things you can do to address the skills challenge,” he said.

Infrastructure & Projects Authority senior advisor Keith Waller argued it wasn’t just more skills but different skills that were needed to shape the industry. Waller co-authored the body’s National Infrastructure Plan for Skills report last year which highlighted the need to recruit and train 100,000 new construction personnel by 2020 and retrain a further 250,000.

The industry has to change

“We need the industry to be different from what it is at the moment,” he said. “The way we currently operate in construction is non-sustainable. If you go back 30 or 40 years, most of the built environment was put together by traditional civil engineering trades. That proportion is decreasing significantly, so we need to focus on how we get the right skills, and from there, focus on how we drive up productivity in delivery; how we improve performance; and ask what role do individuals and organisations play in improving the skilled productive workforce to deliver those outcomes.”

Kapsch TrafficCom managing director Sharon Kindleysides agreed that industry must accept that the skills need is continually changing. Her personal experience bears that out: she began in shipbuilding and now runs an intelligent transport business, focusing on the likely impact of autonomous vehicles.

“When I started working, I went into an industry that doesn’t exist anymore. I’m now working in intelligent transportation systems; a job that didn’t exist 25 years ago. The job today’s graduates and young people are going to be doing when they are my age doesn’t exist yet.”

Transferability of skills was clearly crucial for Kindleysides and it remains crucial, particularly when it comes to addressing the skills challenge over the next five to 10 years: getting more people onto engineering-related courses is of course vital, but there are more immediate issues requiring action.

Darren James

Darren James

How does the industry attract in the best talent from other sectors?

There is the perception that civil engineering is slow moving, argued business studies graduate, former bouncer and now Waterco business development manager Pedr Jones: “You don’t get that feeling in the media about how productive civil engineering can be. People like fast moving and quick turnarounds, and High Speed 2 might not be finished for another 30 years. It’s doesn’t strike you as a dynamic industry.”

There is also recognition issue. The lack of aspiration is the biggest problem, said Duncan Codd, former botanist and now principal structural engineer at Aecom. 

“Civil engineering isn’t a recognisable qualification in the same way that law or medicine is in the UK. People are looking for a career in their mid-teens and they don’t know the difference between a plumber or an engineer.”

Philosophy graduate, former banker and now Peter Brett Associates science, technology, engineering and maths project manager Dan Phelps agreed there was an issue around recognition. 

“When I go into schools and ask if anyone knows what an engineer is, they say an engineer is the guy who comes and fixes the Internet. That is their understanding.”

Using your engineering title is important

ICE vice president, membership and diversity Adrian Coy rejected this position, explaining that the ICE had been working on a diversity action plan to change perceptions and attitudes in the industry. He argued that civil engineers only had themselves to blame if they shortened their professional qualification – be it chartered engineer, incorporated engineer, technician engineer to just “engineer”. “These are protected titles, and engineers should use them. They only have themselves to blame if they don’t use the title,” he said.

James agreed. “We need to help the industry become a bit more elitist about what a chartered engineer is, improve the acceptance of it and then people will inspire to it more.”

Italian-born Mauro Bono, a principal engineer at Pell Frischmann, insisted that the belief that improving the recognition of the engineer will solve the problem should be treated with caution. He argued that in his home country the civil engineer title is protected but there is still an issue with civil engineering being unattractive. “The industry is still not attractive to women and other people, so to protect the title wouldn’t really be the answer.”

Michelle Hicks

Michelle Hicks

Engineering creativity must be emphasised

Coy argued that the creative part of engineering had to be emphasised if it is going to be attractive option to more people. 

“If we look at autonomous vehicles, or other new technologies such as Hyperloop, there is a lot innovation and creativity out there,” he stressed. 

“The word engineer originates from ingenuity,” he argued, “and I don’t think we are doing enough to highlight that. 

“One of things about attracting skills into the industry is to sell the creativity,” he emphasised. 

“We need to re-imagine what engineering is about,” he said. “The use of technology means that the industry is no longer as reliant on the maths and physics. Machines can do that for us.”

New Civil Engineer’s current graduate of the year Michelle Hicks said she thought that civil engineers will always need the core skills sets, but it’s what comes with those which is important. 

Non-engineers can adapt quickly

“People like myself coming in to the industry, we are adaptable, we can pick up new ideas and I think there is a lot for us to do in order to make sure we are not just replicating what is already there,” she said.

Costain’s James agreed that it was the industry’s responsibility to create the “enablers” so that in 10 years’ time we are not having the same conversation.

Geology graduate and now Phase Consultants consultant Burt Browne agreed.

“There’s a myth that creative people don’t do maths and science, so a simple enabler would be to get rid of that myth at a young age.”

That, of course, will not tackle the issue in the short- to medium-term, the focus for the debate. For that, Browne added, industry needed to take heed of the avenues for people to enter the profession being provided by bodies like the ICE. 

“The routes to membership are there,” he argued, “but if I’m going to lay criticism, it’s at the door of industry.

“Engineers work to spec and the graduate civil engineer ‘fits the spec’,” he said. The result is that many employers run approved training schemes making it easy for these engineers to progress.

“Non-engineers need to be similarly approved and that is where industry could do more, by giving non-engineers access to champions in the business to help them find their route,” he said.

Mauro Bono

Mauro Bono

Action to bring in more non-engineers is needed

Waller urged action to bring in more non-engineers, suggesting that there are plenty of chartered engineers in the UK to do the jobs that chartered engineers are required to do. But he says that the industry needs more people with those skills to do to the broad range of jobs that need doing. 

“Probably half of us around this table are chartered engineers who probably spend less than 10% of our time on chartered engineering work,” he said. 

James agreed: “It is clear, from the very people around the table, that there is a diverse talent pool that can be harnessed to meet the challenge to deliver national infrastructure projects. 

“We need to make sure the skills crisis is viewed as an opportunity,” he reiterated.

And, from the mood in the room, better selling the creative aspect of engineering to non-engineers would be a good start. The next question is how.

What do you think? How should the industry sell its creativity to better attract skilled and passionate professionals with different, yet transferable skills? Do you know of a successful initiative that has drawn in differently skilled individuals? If you do, email

At the table

Mauro Bono principal engineer, Pell Frischmann
Burt Browne consultant, Phase Consultants
Duncan Codd principal structural engineer, Aecom
Adrian Coy local authority strategy director, Aecom and ICE vice president, membership and diversity 
Mike Curthoys project director, Mott MacDonald
Mark Hansford, editor New Civil Engineer
Michelle Hicks assistant engineer, WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff
Daniel Higgins engineer, WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff
Darren James managing director infrastructure, Costain
Pedr Jones business development manager, Waterco
Sharon Kindleysides managing director, Kapsch TrafficCom
Mike Napier business development director, Costain
Dan Phelps STEM project manager, Peter Brett Associates
Keith Waller senior advisor Infrastructure & Projects Authority

In association with

costain logo

costain logo



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