Like local authorities across the UK, in the last few years Essex County Council has divested itself of in-house design and contracting capabilities, instead sourcing services from the private sector. It has managed to cut costs and achieved operational efficiencies. But in so doing, it has lost its ability to train its graduate engineers properly.
To rectify the situation, the Council launched an ICE-backed scheme this summer (NCE 28 June), to provide graduates with the breadth of experience and skills necessary to achieve chartered (CEng), incorporated (IEng) or engineering technician (EngTech) member status.
County and District Council employees will be seconded to contractors May Gurney and Alfred McAlpine, both engaged in highways maintenance under extendable three year partnering agreements, and to term consultant WS Atkins.
Essex County Council graduate engineer, 26 year old Tom Allen, is already working for McAlpine (see below). Paul Grimwood, his 28 year old colleague, is also signed up to the training scheme, although not yet placed with any of Essex's training partners. Training needs are agreed with a supervising civil engineer.
'There is no real limit on the number of employees that can be seconded if they need the training, our partners can provide it, and we can spare them, ' says council training officer David Marcus. The scheme is reciprocal, enabling May Gurney, McAlpine and Atkins staff to spend corresponding time at Essex County Council.
'Individuals with a wide range of experience are showing an interest in the scheme, ' comments Marcus. 'Some are seeking to sharpen the focus of their careers, while others might be looking for a mid career change.'
He describes the scheme as flexible, enabling young engineers to explore areas of interest and so better plan their career development. 'We have become a fairly specialised client organisation, and this enables our staff to discover what it is like working for a designer or a contractor.'
There are other attractions in the scheme. Local authorities have been seeking 'best value' in procurement of services and construction. Understanding the requirements and working practices of consultants and contractors is integral to attaining this goal. 'It is imperative that the client is intelligent - that it understands the ways consultants and contractors work, ' Marcus says. 'We need to provide our staff with depth and width of training. The only other option is to buy in experienced people from the market, and they are becoming much more scarce.'
And it is important that graduates 'get involved in detailed technical issues' so that, as clients, they become better decision makers, believes WS Atkins technical director Steve Read.
'At some future date the client's graduates will be clients themselves.' His view is endorsed by May Gurney director of highways maintenance Roger Williamson: 'The scheme provides people from the county and district council side with the chance to develop an understanding of how the private sector works - of how resources are managed in a commercial environment, of safety, productivity and performance issues.
Conversely, Atkins, May Gurney and McAlpine staff will be able to gain insight to 'public sector decision making processes and the political issues that the client has to deal with', says Read.
'It offers a taste of what it is like being a public servant - how the council interacts with the public, and what impact construction has on the public. It provides lessons you can apply to your design.'
As partnering agreements, framework contracts and public private partnerships become more widespread, inter-organisational understanding will become increasingly important.
'We are in an environment where consultants, contractors and clients have to work far more closely together, ' says Read.
Williamson is anticipating a two-fold benefit. Improved training will encourage engineers to stay with client, contractor and consultant bodies instead of moving on in search of career development. Management will become increasingly streamlined as project teams spend more time together. And seconding staff will encourage personal friendships to develop, he hopes.
'Trusting relationships are an essential ingredient for any partnership. The more we can improve relationships the better projects will run and, ultimately, the better we will deliver service to the public. And that's what it is all about.'
Outsourcing contracting to the private sector means some councils have lost the capacity to train engineers Essex has overcome this by seconding staff to partner contractors and consultants Contractors' staff also gain an insight into how clients work, eventually streamlining management