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Developing talent

Judges singled out Atkins’ focus on people at the recent GE Awards, but the company is not sitting back to enjoy the recognition and has plans to further extend its staff development programmes. Claire Symes reports

After gaining a high commendation in the consultant of the year category of the 2012 GE Awards, Atkins managing director of ground engineering David French says he was delighted to win the award this year. Judges singled Atkins out from other companies on the shortlist because of its focus on people, and because of its demonstration of technical excellence and its delivery of major projects and growth during the recession.

“People are at the centre of what we do, so we were very pleased to receive the citation for this element of our work,” says French. “We have made a huge effort on staff development for many years and over time the expectations have been raised, so it’s good to have the external recognition.”


The Atkins ground engineering academy has an annual field trip to improve knowledge and communication within the group

French says that he is proud of the growth that the business has delivered through the recession.

“Apart from a small dip we have grown continually for the last four years and it’s our people that have got us through these challenging times,” he adds.

The ground engineering group sits within the Water & Environment division of the Atkins UK and Europe business and currently has 265 staff. The other, smaller, centres for geotechnics are located in the Middle East and Hong Kong.

Given the size of the UK operation, staff based here serve the global business for external clients and the internal Atkins market.

“There is roughly a 50/50 balance between the work we carry out internally and the work delivered for external clients,” says French.

This broad business base and international focus has helped the ground engineering group get through the recession successfully, according to French. “UK infrastructure spending was cut in the early years of the recession so we had a strong focus on the global energy market to maintain work levels. We are really gaining traction in this market now and we are now seeing UK infrastructure demand increasing too.”


Delegates at Atkins’ Ground Engineering Academy were set the task of building models to explain the industry to school children

Staff levels are now up to an all time high and French aims to have 300 in the team by the end of the year with around two thirds of the new recruits expected to be recent graduates.

French, along with a number of his colleagues, has been with the business for more than 20 years and he believes this has real benefits.

“We have built up relationships with many of our clients over many years and they see us as part of their armoury when it comes to dealing with technical issues,” he says.

French also believes that this wealth of knowledge provides good support and learning opportunities for more junior staff.

“We have been running a number of programmes over the years to ensure that their development is guided,” he says.

One of the longest running initiatives is the Scholarship Scheme for undergraduates and graduates who are approaching completion of their first degree and are contemplating a career in ground engineering.

“The scheme formalised what we had been doing for a number of years,” says Atkins technical director for engineering geology David Shilston.


The Atkins team with its GE Consultant of the Year award

“This year we had 505 applications for 25 summer placements. There are so many astoundingly good applicants from such a wide range of universities that it is difficult to make the selection, so we encourage our different offices to select students based on the projects they are currently working on.”

“This is a real job where the students are selected to fit the job, not just a placement where they are recruited and then work is found for them. As a company we define the scheme but don’t dictate to the offices who they should take.”

Although a number of the students who are part of the scheme eventually are recruited on graduation or sponsored through an MSc before joining the company, Shilston says that the scheme is not aimed at recruitment. “It is more about helping students make well informed choices about their career and to have the chance to explore all the options,” he says.

Once graduates are recruited by Atkins they are invited to join the Ground Engineering Academy which, in coordination with the Atkins graduate scheme, aims to guide them through the process of gaining chartership, whether that is through the Geological Society (who have accredited their Engineering Geology Training Scheme) or the Institution of Civil Engineers.

“The academy was launched four years ago to provide structured training and a dedicated mentor,” says Atkins principal engineering geologist Tracey Radford.

“It has helped to facilitate in a more structured way the knowledge transfer from experienced staff that has always existed.”

The academy involves a range of activities including technical workshops, bespoke training courses and active on-the-job mentoring delivered locally, but the academy’s 120 members also come together twice a year – once for a field trip and again for an annual conference.

“The conference is aimed at helping the graduates to network and exchange ideas andexperiences,” says Radford.

“There is a social element to all the events but with a support and learning focus.”

French says that the quality of graduates coming into the business since the recession has been impressive and he believes some who would once have been attracted by the banking and financial services sector are now looking for a personally satisfying and more certain long term career.

“The idea of being able to play a part in solving world problems is attractive, and civil engineering is coming back into fashion,” he says.

These initiatives helped Atkins to secure the Consultant of the Year category in this year’s GE Awards. Now, the company is about to launch the next stage of its staff development programmes.

“We know that the highest level of staff turnover comes immediately post-chartership,” says French. “For them it is a hinge point in their career but for everyone else around them it can be business as usual.”

“Our new ground engineering professionals programme aims to recognise the need for a new focus and create a tailored career route in a more formal, but flexible, way than in the past and does not assume there will be a natural progression.”

French says that the programme will aim to give people a midcareer appraisal of their aspirations. “Some might want to work more internationally, while for others a major project focus or move to another part of the Atkins business may be more of a motivator,” he says. “Essentially we want people to know that they don’t need to leave Atkins to develop their careers.”

While all the focus on development is good for employees, Atkins clearly believes that it is also good for business. “I think that staff development is an essential part of meeting the challenges that face our clients in delivering infrastructure fit for the future that also meets sustainability demands,” says French.

Last year Atkins worked in partnership with the Department for International Development and University College London to produce the Future Proofing Cities report which assessed the range of environmental risks facing cities and the practical steps that they could take to future proof themselves.

“How to square rapid urbanisation with sustainability issues is starting to engage all parts of Atkins and the ground engineering group has a major role to play for example with tunnels for transportation solutions and utilities, and geotechnics and foundations engineering for building and transport development,” says French. “Our engineers must have a broad range of skills in order to meet these evolving needs.”

While Atkins may not have all the answers yet, it is clear that the company will have a well-skilled workforce to help lead clients through the challenging times ahead.

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