“I didn’t engage with the ICE at all. I saw it as dated, chauvinistic and traditionalist.”
So says Michelagh O’Neill, a young engineer working towards chartership with Scottish consultant JBA and currently an ICE President’s Apprentice.
The scheme was started by former ICE President Gordon Masterton in 2005, with the aim of engaging twelve young engineers in the inner workings of the Institution.
This year, the scheme has seen some major changes. In response to the frustrations of younger Institution members such as O’Neill, current President professor Paul Jowitt has focused on international development.
For the first time, a practical engineering toolkit will be produced by the apprentices focused on challenges surrounding international development, for use both in the UK and abroad. Jowitt believes that this makes the apprenticeship’s impact and reach much larger and multi-faceted. He says: “The toolkit consists of reference cards which will be online and available for anyone to access, from fellow engineers to non-government organisations.”
Jowitt believes that the apprenticeship makes sure that the voices of the younger members of the ICE get heard on international issues that are becoming increasingly urgent. O’Neill and fellow apprentice, Grontmij’s Tonderai Chakanyuka are certainly outspoken in their views. Chakanyuka says: “I didn’t want to apply for the scheme last year. But the new format this year means we get to actively make something that will benefit other engineers, and there’s an emphasis on raising the profession’s profile, something I think is necessary to making our impact on society greater.”
The apprentices have met up together three times this year on ICE Presidential visits and work in teams to produce the cards. Visits and funding for the scheme has been sponsored by various industry companies.
“Engineers can actively contribute to a country’s economic prospects.”
A trip to South Africa, where the apprentices visited projects, was an eye opener for the UK-based O’Neill. “I’ve become more open in my views. The highlight for me has been seeing how engineers can actively contribute to a country’s economic prospects.”
One project the apprentices visited was the Zimbambele (Zulu for “doing it for ourselves”) Rural Road Maintenance Project, where locals were given the training and tools to maintain small stretches of rural roads. In return for the maintenance, the community is paid and encouraged to form savings cooperatives. O’Neill says: “It was humbling to see the pride with which people maintained their stretch of road.”
The team of 12 also visited The Moses Madhiba stadium in Durban, constructed for the 2010 World Cup. O’Neill continues: “Whilst this project is distinctly ‘First World’, we saw that through appropriate procurement, large projects can be used to greatly benefit the local community.”
And while some of the international interaction provided opportunities to sample the local culture - the apprentices enjoyed a traditional braai (South African barbeque) with members of the ICE’s sister South African organisation, SAICE - it has also included chances for some serious networking. On a field trip to Paris the European Local Associations Convention (ELAC) was in town at the same time, and the apprentices had the opportunity to attend a reception of British ambassadors and senior engineers from all over Europe.
“We can’t afford to lose this skills set. It would be a disaster if we lost them”
Jowitt says that the industry’s response to the young engineers has been highly positive. “I’ve spoken to engineers who met them [there] and the reaction they’ve had to them has been fantastic.” Other important connections have been made as a result of the scheme. Chakanyuka says: “I’ve been offered to give talks and to attend regional board meetings.” O’Neill has been visiting schools and holding workshops to get the next generation enthused about engineering careers.
All three are agreed that the current wave of newly qualified engineers must be helped as much as possible to stay in the industry despite the trend of graduates drifting into other sectors in search of job security and stable salaries. Jowitt says: “We can’t afford to lose this skill set. In the current economic climate, we have to find other ways to keep them - whether it’s job sharing or further training. It would be a disaster if we lost them.” Chakanyuka adds: “The government has got to do something to encourage us. We’ve got to make the policy makers understand how crucial engineering is.”
The scheme has at least encouraged one engineer who was thinking of leaving to stay in the profession. O’Neill admits: “I was seriously considering leaving the profession before this scheme. But one of the reasons why I wanted to become an engineer was to make change. Everything seems a lot more achievable now.”