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Forging a new spirit of British excellence

Steve Feeley

The industry must work hard to attract new engineering recruits.

A new term, new uniforms, new schools, new students and new courses, the onset of September signals the start of new chapters for many. In some respect this time of year is the spring-time of the learning and development cycle with new beginnings and new hope for thousands.

This is particularly evident to us in the team in West Midlands, with the opening of the brand new Aston University Engineering Academy opposite our ICE office at Birmingham Science Park. A University Technology College (UTC), these technically orientated colleges for 14-19 year olds are springing up around the UK, delivering an engineering themed education bringing context and real engineering issues to the classroom, another real opportunity for us as a profession, to reach out to more youngsters entering the engineering community.

Whether starting a GCSE in maths or science, a new apprenticeship, a degree in civil engineering, or that first full time job, all can be both daunting and exhilarating in equal measure. Taking the next step towards a professional career in civil engineering, towards fulfilling an ambition to make a difference, towards reaching a potential, is another step taken by many towards a lifetime professional career delivering innovation and ingenuity.

In visiting the Black Country Living Museum, near Dudley, West Midlands, with ICE President Richard Coackley to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Thomas Newcomen’s Engine, I was struck just how transformational the achievements of this visionary pioneer, his contemporaries and those who followed him, really were. Not that we need reminding, but seeing the visionary figure of IK Brunel forging of the Olympics rings at the opening ceremony was a global celebration of British ingenuity, stirring stuff for us all. The strides made by these innovators were not merely technological leaps in discovery and the appliance of science, but hugely significant in commercial and social development.

Engineering is, and will always remain, a creative and innovative discipline, and this spirit of invention and innovation which shapes our society remains within our profession today. We must capture and communicate it, to those in our schools, colleges and universities, to those in positions of influence, and to those who have never heard of this great profession.

At a time when society needs solutions, the economy needs growth and the country needs innovation, it is vital that as a profession, individually and collectively, we continue to profile not only our infrastructure needs and achievements, but the vision and spirit of innovation of those who deliver it. From grass roots level upwards across the UK, ICE Members and teams are striving to raise the status and profile of not merely civil engineering, but the civil engineers and technicians whose skills, professionalism and ingenuity, deliver it.

Every school visit, every media article, every enthusiastic conversation can make a difference, will challenge stereotypes and change minds, and it works. It’s rewarding to see the progress being made in engaging with newly-formed Local Enterprise Partnerships within our English regions, formed of civic and business leaders, where the voice of civil engineering is getting louder, with innovation and skills high on everyone’s agenda. In a city such as Birmingham, where 37% of the population is under 25, our challenge is great, but the opportunity and rewards can be is greater.

But while we target finite resources at key audiences - such as central and local government, national and local media - the ability to raise the status of a profession lies also within each of us. As media people and decision-makers have often told me, don’t bemoan a lack of status, this merely serves to reinforce.

We must continue to be visionary, to be creative, to deliver, but then celebrate and communicate the spirit of innovation, pride and achievement that is very much alive within the civil engineering profession.

  • Steve Feeley is ICE head of English regions and director, ICE West Midlands

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