Rab Fernie clearly has a passion for geotechnics and as the new chairman of the British Geotechnical Association, he plans to channel it to better the industry. Claire Symes reports.
On first meeting the newly appointed chairman of the British Geotechnical Association (BGA), it is hard not to get caught up in Rab Fernie’s enthusiasm for the industry.
It is clear he is a man that enjoys his work and will use his time heading up the BGA to promote professionalism within the industry and to the wider world.
Fernie, the technical director of Cementation Skanska, officially took over the role of chairman from City University’s Sarah Stallebrass at the BGA’s AGM in June this year.
“The BGA is a very good organisation and is one of the best supported specialist groups with around 1,200 members across consultants, contractors and academics,” he says.
Nonetheless, it is clear he already has a number of issues that he is keen to tackle during his two-year term.
One of the main areas that Fernie wants to get the industry to consider is the need to inspire the next generation of engineers.
He believes that one of the problems facing the geotechnics industry in the UK is that it is an ageing sector.
“It is not a problem to attract new recruits into the sector, but it is more of a problem of how they make their mark,” he says.
“I always tell young engineers to project their career 10 years ahead and try to steer themselves in that direction.
It is always important to have a target and young professionals need to ask themselves whether they want to be an academic, a site engineer or a designer.”
But how can they do this with conviction without role models?
“I learnt big things from the big people who were at the forefront of the industry when I first started. But now the developments are more incremental. Sir Alec Skempton and his contemporaries made big leaps forward in soil mechanics 20 to 30 years ago, but developments in more recent years have been smaller.
“It is difficult to pick out heroes and follow them these days.”
Fernie says that when he spoke at the memorial service for Skempton in 2001, he used the quote that Isaac Newton is often linked with - “we are standing on the shoulders of giants”.
“I learnt big things from the big people who were at the forefront of the industry when I first started”
He says this sums up the need for heroes and role models in the industry.
When asked what attracted him into the ground engineering sector, Fernie says it was his interest in innovation and the implementation of new ideas that drew him into geotechnics.
However, he still describes himself as a civil engineer despite working in geotechnics for much of his career.
Fyfe-born Fernie started out as a highways engineer after completing a degree in civil engineering at Herriot-Watt University in Edinburgh and he is already looking forward to Edinburgh hosting the BGA conference in 2015.
He describes the 1960s as an exciting time to join the geotechnics sector in the UK. “There were a lot of major projects under way - particularly when it came to motorway building,” he says.
Other developments he remembers from his early years as a geotechnical engineer include the emergence of Andrew Schofield’s Cam Clay Model.
“Imperial ruled the world at that time,” he says. “It was a period when there was a real marrying of engineering geology with geotechnics.”
Asked to define the two, Fernie says engineering geology uses an observational approach, whereas geotechnics has a more civil engineering approach that combines soil mechanics - “although I’ve always thought it should be ground mechanics”, he says - with physics.
“Both skills are essential but it is important to recognise the difference and that is what the BGA’s new Register of Ground Engineering Professionals (ROGEP) registration is all about,” explains Fernie.
Although he can see the benefits of the ROGEP system, he confesses to not being a great fan.
“The younger generation was keen for it to happen though,” he says.
“The first tier of people has been assessed and a second tier is now being invited to apply and they will become assessors. We will report on progress of the system in December at the Flemming Awards.”
Fernie believes that the registration will be useful as the economy recovers from recession.
“The UK was in recession when I graduated and I have worked through five recessions in my career,” he says. “Each time I have seen people leave the industry and this has resulted in a gap grade - the industry has lost a lot of gifted people and as a result there have not been any great engineers in recent periods.
“The volume of people leaving the industry and working overseas means that the UK industry often needs to ‘import’ engineering skills when the economic recovery starts.”
Fernie believes that the country is moving out of recession and the economy is out of the bottom of the trough.
He says conditions for the geotechnics industry are starting to improve as a result too.
“This recession was different from previous ones and the changes in the banking world may help to put engineers off making a career in banking,” he says.
“Younger engineers are passionate about what they are doing and also more concerned about the environment than ever before,” he says.
Fernie believes that his own employers’ recent recognition as one of the UK’s top green companies is helping to attract talented engineers to the business.
Nonetheless, he says that is a downside to the focus on the environment when it comes to ground engineering.
“Clients have limited budgets for site investigation and testing and analysis for contamination is diverting funds away from geotechnics,” he says. “This is placing a lot of focus on observation rather than testing.
“As a sector we are very capable of engineering to existing knowledge to cope with the risk, but this is why, despite the good history of safety, things do sometimes go wrong.”
This brings him to one of the initiatives that he’d like to promote during his time as chairman of the BGA.
“It seems to me that we are a bright bunch of people, so why can’t we use a peer review system to resolve problems and avoid legal involvement?
“The other side of the coin is to consider what the impact on the industry would be if we don’t take this approach”
It is all about balancing risks, so surely we can find a mature way to buy this?
“ROGEP will create a core of recognised people,” he says. “A lot of people in the sector undertake expert witness work, but why can’t these people be involved earlier while the project is on site and remove the confrontational way problems are currently resolved?”
Fernie points to a similar system that is used in the US. “The US is normally renowned for its litigious approach but I think they are getting something right when it comes to resolving construction problems,” he says.
“Category 2 and 3 design checks grew after the Aberfan disaster but peer reviewing could be taken to the next stage.
I’d like to see it used on site to prove it can work - it will take time for the industry to accept it - but use on a landmark project would highlight the potential benefits.”
While Fernie accepts that most clients would not want to be the first to put such a system through its paces, he adds: “The other side of the coin is to consider what the impact on the industry would be if we don’t take this approach.”
Although Fernie will be devoting much of his time to heading up the BGA during his two-year tenure, he will maintain a high profile elsewhere in the industry.
He will continue to combine his chairmanship with his work for Cementation Skanska, as well as undertaking duties as visiting lecturer at both Newcastle University and Imperial College and a member of the EPSRC Civil Engineering College, among others.
This may sound like a tough challenge, but he says that the role is for a fixed term and the next chairman is already elected and waiting in the wings
“This process gives you a few years to prepare for the task,” he says.
It is clear that Fernie is prepared to give it his all too.