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Happy at Happold

Graduate training

You have hired a group of promising graduates. Your next problem is how to get the best out of them. Michael Dickson explains how Buro Happold goes about it.

How does a firm like Buro Happold keep its cutting edge? In terms of numbers it ranks as a medium sized consultancy, but the firm is consistently associated with some of the most prestigious and innovative projects around. A young engineer from Happold almost inevitably will exhibit a degree of ease, confidence and enthusiasm that is not always the case with their contemporaries.

If you were to ask chairman Michael Dickson, he would probably reply that the strength of the firm lies with its people, from high profile award winning engineers to the newest graduate engineer. But it is not enough to recruit the cream of a year's crop of graduates, give them a desk and a brief to act as gofer supporting an established star, he believes. Young engineers have to be nurtured if they are to reach their full potential, he says.

'We try to give them every help to grow their careers, ' Dickson explains. 'When the firm established itself in Bath, the location was chosen because Ted Happold was teaching at the university and that teaching tradition has transferred'.

Each graduate is given a mentor - an experienced member of staff - to whom he or she can apply for advice on anything from how to fill in an expenses claim to how to approach a particular design problem. 'The chemistry between the two individuals has to be right, so it doesn't always work out the way you would want it to.' But when it does it's an excellent learning process for both.

More formally, shortly after joining, graduates are brought together for a two week period during which they work as a team to design a project. 'It's a real project with a real site, but a virtual client, ' Dickson explains.

The object is to 'make them express themselves', he says.

The exercise is repeated two years later.

Ideas and innovations are welcomed. 'It's our job to try and innovate process and product, ' says Dickson and to that end he says you need to create 'turbulence' - an atmosphere like a water flow where new ideas will bubble to the top.

So for the younger members of staff it is never a question of 'working for', but 'working with'. They are encouraged to take initiatives and assume responsibility, but senior engineers will always be on hand to back them. If there are problems 'then our shoulders are broad enough', says Dickson adding that 'you have to make your own mistakes and our senior people know, and make it clear, that we are there to help out'.

Buro Happold, he says, has always made a point of deliberately seeking both large and small commissions so that younger members of staff can gain experience of running their own projects at an early stage in their careers, knowing that back-up is readily available.

There are also regular design workshops when everyone is invited to get together around a project, discuss all its aspects;

what has been learned and what might have been done better.

Again, everyone is encouraged to contribute, no matter whether their experience is calculated in months or years.

Young members of staff are also encouraged to look for experience outside their direct working environment. 'Two or three of our young engineers have taken part in the Royal Society of Designers for Industry summer school, others have served with Sara Parkin's sustainability working party, Engineers for the 21st century. We want them to encounter different thought processes and bring them back.'

'Ted Happold once said that people should come to work to express their creativity, and that's what we want them to do.'

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