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Full marks for Thames

Professional review

In one year Thames Water has boosted its pass rate at the ICE professional review from a lowly 25% to an unbeatable 100%. Mark Hansford finds out how.

For much of the 1990s the pass rate of Thames Water's graduates at the Institution of Civil Engineers' professional review had been steadily falling, until in spring 2000 just a quarter of those sitting passed.

Drastic action was called for, and over the past 18 months Thames has completely relaunched its professional engineer training scheme, endorsed by a new five year accreditation from the ICE. In the two reviews since the relaunch, not one candidate has failed.

A genuine success story, but one that did not come easy for a firm as diverse as Thames Water.

While more graduates in Thames are training towards ICE membership than any other professional institution, any scheme must still cater for mechanical, electrical and chemical engineers as well as those seeking membership of the Chartered Institution of Water & Environmental Management.

The firm was also aware that its position, better described as an 'expert client', in the words of engineering manager Nigel Earnshaw, than a traditional civils consultant or contractor, had made it difficult in the past for its graduates to meet ICE requirements.

Contracts were a particular issue, explains Earnshaw: 'A lot of our contracts are alliances using the IChemE target cost contract. While we still consider this to be a good form of contract for us, we recognise that our engineers need a bit more grounding in other contracts.

'So we send them on more courses, put them on other contracts to get exposure of other forms, and are now more open to sending our graduates on secondment, ' he continues. 'But at the same time the ICE's ethos has moved on, and they are a little more open to the experience our graduates get.'

It is in fact the current ICE core objectives that are the driver behind the new-look scheme. Working closely with ICE regional liaison officer Chris Rickards, newly-appointed professional development co-ordinator Christine Williams developed the scheme by mapping Thames Water's business critical objectives on to the ICE objectives. These can then in turn be related to the objectives of the other institutions.

'While the objectives of each institution may be different, it is a difference of emphasis rather than substance. Many objectives are common across the five, ' says Earnshaw.

Coupled with this is an increased emphasis on the role of mentoring: 'The relationship between mentor and graduate is absolutely key to a lasting relationship, ' says Earnshaw. 'A fundamental part of every engineer's job is spreading his or her knowledge and successful mentoring can play a big part in succession planning. Graduates of today will become the senior managers of tomorrow.

'A few hours out of the working month is not unreasonable, and it is part of continuing professional development, ' says Earnshaw. 'We have absolutely no problems in making the mentoring of two or three graduates a part of an engineer's performance review.'

Similarly for the graduate, professional development is now an integral part of a three pronged, twice yearly performance appraisal.

Thames hopes that with the new scheme fourth or fifth year graduates should be ready to sit their review, which will in turn act as an incentive for those with seven or eight years experience to get a move on.

'With the pass rate dropping people lost interest, ' says Earnshaw. 'Now we have a rising rate, and that has a ripple effect.'

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