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Future engineer | Skills for 2020

Illustration cropped.eps

As Britain seeks to deliver 21st century infrastructure, there is a tremendous opportunity to rethink the skills needed – and find new ways of tapping into them.

What is a future engineer?

The infrastructure challenges of today are very different to those of 20 or 30 years ago. Back then, the nation still saw the construction of new roads, water treatment works and power networks as the way to solve the problems of overcrowding and under-capacity, and civil engineering graduates could anticipate a lifetime of designing and constructing these new assets.

Darren James

Darren James

James: This is not a skills crisis

But in today’s world, most engineers are being asked to work out how to get more out of the infrastructure we have, rather than build something new.

It may well still start with the basics. As incoming ICE President Tim Broyd tells New Civil Engineer this month: you do have to start with the basics – as he says, “no-one wants the bridge to fall down”.

Technical excellence is very much the bedrock on which all engineering is founded. But what else?

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

Darren James, Costain

What skills are desired in an engineer who is fit for the future? Over the last 12 months New Civil Engineer has teamed up with Costain to research just that – the findings will be unveiled at an event at the ICE next month and published in New Civil Engineer’s January 2017 issue.

The most important point to stress is that this is not a crisis.

“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,” says Costain managing director, 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.”

Do you need to be a civil engineer?

“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 says.

But it would be no surprise to say that in addition to technical skills, there are three obvious needs: technology skills, social skills and commercial skills.

Technology is the big one.

Growing technology role

Over the next decade, technology’s role in delivering, maintaining and operating infrastructure is likely to grow out of all recognition, and the industry is busily adapting.

A glance at the top 10 future technology firms in the NCE100 confirms this.

The fact that all the firms in the top 10 have a digital strategy and a board director responsible for its successful implementation reflects the fact that many have an awareness of how critical it is.

Yet if Zipabout technical director Daniel Chick is to be believed, this is the area of biggest challenge. Because, as Chick would argue, many engineers who think they are technologically aware are in fact some way off the pace.

Taking digital seriously

And this will be huge. As Broyd tells New Civil Engineer, this year is the year the ICE takes digital seriously – the year that the industry’s leaders move past BIM Level 2 as a means to collaborate on construction projects and into the world where technology is informing how assets are operated, maintained and replaced.

And as Sharon Kindleysides who is UK managing director of global intelligent transportation systems (ITS) specialist Kapsch TrafficCom tells New Civil Engineer this month, it’s a major leap. Traditional skills alone will not cut it.

“A road now includes sensors and communications equipment; it’s not just a bit of blacktop,” she observes.

“There is a blurring of boundaries, and you can’t cubbyhole things any more. You’ve got roads talking to vehicles, and traffic lights talking to cars.”

She is a firm believer that inter-institutional boundaries must come down. “When we start looking at autonomous vehicles, we will have to have changes in the rulebook, and we have got to stop to having these divisions between civil engineering, mechanical engineering, architecture etcetera,” she tells us.

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Sharon kindleysides

Kindleysides: Experience more important than qualifications

She adds: “We need more people who haven’t just got maths and physics – we need people who can understand the human side, and they are as likely to be psychologists or anthropologists.”

So on to the social skills. As outgoing ICE President Sir John Armitt observes this month, there is now – arguably there always has been – a real need for engineers to be able to engage with the public.

“The engineer’s role is to talk to the public a lot more and understand the expectations,” observes Armitt. “If you can show to a politician that a person is going to vote for him or her [because of an investment decision], I think that’s quite important,” he notes.

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John Armitt

Armitt: Engineers need to understand the public need

It is important. But just how attuned to the public voice is the civil engineering community?

Over the last two years, the professional bodies, the trade associations and the big employers of civil engineers have repeatedly urged the government to commit to the grand projects – be they High Speed 2, Heathrow’s third runway or otherwise – to boost the economy.

There are compelling arguments for them. But what does the public want?

There is a lot of talk that chancellor Philip Hammond will use this month’s Autumn Statement to spend money on infrastructure in the name of fiscal stimulus. The then government did the same thing around 2012.

Back in 2012, pollsters Ipsos Mori asked the public what was the best way to boost the economy? The options were

  • Increase airport capacity
  • Build a new high speed rail line
  • Improve existing road infrastructure
  • Improve and extend high speed broadband
  • Build more homes
  • Improve existing rail infrastructure

Was it high speed rail? Not a chance. That was rank bottom with 4% in favour. Second from bottom was increasing airport capacity with only  5% in favour. More people wanted high speed broadband improved then they did a third runway at Heathrow.

Top – and by a country mile – was the demand build more homes. Forty per cent those polled picked that as the best way to boost the economy. Few in the civil engineering industry are calling for that.

Out of touch

So how is it that the civil engineering profession seems so out of touch with the society it seeks to serve?

A major theme of Broyd’s year is to support the ICE’s broadening agenda by ushering in the first of a new breed of Associate Member – professionals who are not civil engineers by training or education but who play a major role in infrastructure.

It is a significant development that could go a long way towards getting the industry to provide a more balanced view about the nation’s infrastructure needs.

“The broadening membership initiative comes very much out of the strategy to provide thought leadership,” he says. “We are not a lobby group. We are not in the game of creating jobs for civil engineers. We see it as our responsibility to ensure that infrastructure decisions are aided by evidence-based knowledge from the representative professional body.

Tim Broyd

Tim Broyd

Broyd: This is the year for digital

“Broadening will allow us to speak with more authority,” he states.

This means psychologists or anthropologists are welcome.

Broyd’s third theme is related in many ways – and that is to continue the Institution’s push on diversity.

Non-traditional relationships

There is a neat synergy between all three themes. Indeed, the Digital Built Britain programme states as its key goal the “creation of relationships outside the traditional construction sector to create a holistic, outward-looking and inclusive industry that is seen to demonstrably add significant value and be seen as a diverse and attractive employer”.

In plain speak, that means disruptive digital technology is going to be used to jolt the industry into the 21st century and make it realise that to many: broadband is more important than cheap flights; potholes and roadworks are more annoying than crowded intercity trains; and the biggest infrastructure crisis in the country is lack of homes and not lack of high speed trains.

Civil engineering interventions

Major civil engineering interventions will of course be required. Our cities are at capacity and more metro capacity is needed whether that is London, Manchester or cities in between.

The third skill is commercial – but not old school commercial. Behaviours that allow for collaboration within a tense commercial environment are crucial – a view expressed by delegates at New Civil Engineer’s first NCE100 Round Table Debate, which took place last month.

As Arup board director and global and UKMEA head of infrastructure Peter Chamley says, the industry has already come a long way in the past 30 years from “the adversarial days when contracts conditions were designed to promote a fight”. But, as the round table concluded, collaboration does not necessarily mean being nice. And that means that new behaviours are needed – new skills for engineers fit for the future to learn.

  • New Civil Engineer’s Skills for 2020 event is taking place at the ICE at 6pm on 22 November.
  • Confirmed speakers include Crossrail chairman and government skills tsar Terry Morgan, Costain infrastructure managing director Darren James, Kapsch TrafficCom managing director Sharon Kindleysides and ICE vice president, membership and diversity Adrian Coy.
  • To find out more or book your place, email

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