Last year Atkins’ David Shilston became the first engineering geologist to become president of the Geological Society. Claire Symes talks to him about the role and his ambitions to tackle the skills issues facing the sector.
When Atkins technical director of engineering geology David Shilston was elected as president of the Geological Society last summer, he was not short of ideas that he wanted to action during his two-year tenure. However, it is clear that his main concern is the future of the industry - not in terms of workload or innovation but in terms of the people to deliver the work.
There are three main things that Shilston hopes to make an impact on during his presidency. “These aims are not standalone but interlinked and focus on ensuring our profession moves forward and also gains new recruits,” he says.
“I went to my boss in the late 1980s and suggested that we hire some archaeologists to start a heritage group. I wanted to apply geology with archaeology to provide a complete solution.”
The first aim is to focus on education and training. “We are working with other industry organisations and groups to try to quantify the real size of skills shortage. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence but we want to find out exactly how many people are needed in each sector to meet demand. Only when we have this can we go to the government with facts to demand change with regards to funding of MSc courses in the UK.”
His second goal is to help undergraduates understand how to get a job in the industry and help create networking within the regional groups. “At Atkins we run summer placements for students in geological degrees that give them the chance to work on real jobs and understand what will be expected of them in the workplace,” explains Shilston. “Too many graduates don’t know what opportunities are out there and also are not ready for the move into a commercial environment.
“Creating a stronger link between academia and industry nationally is important both to ensure we don’t lose graduates to other industries but also to try to ensure we work more collaboratively in the future.”
The third area that Shilston wants to improve is the number of society members that hold chartered status. “Currently only around 20% are chartered because many sectors within geology do not see the value in having this professional accreditation,” he says. “This is something that we will have to work out how to do but it is important for the industry’s professionalism to be recognised and respected.”
Although all these aims are linked, it is the issues relating to education that are closest to his heart as he believes that students coming through the system have not had the benefits he had at their age - benefits he believes have been key to his career development and he fears for the future of industry’s next generation.
“I have always been interested in geology,” he says. “I was lucky to have an interest - the teenage years are so important for shaping what you might do as a career.”
Shilston went to Nottingham University to study geology and he says this is a base that has stood him in good stead throughout his career. One of his other hobbies was archaeology and he decided to pursue this on graduation and studied for a post-graduate certificate in the subject at St John’s College at Cambridge University. “I was very lucky to get government funding for not just my fees but also for my living costs for this and my undergraduate degree,” he says.
“I didn’t realise it at the time but both courses were a real investment in the future. It is very hard to know what building blocks you will need at the start of your career and what value they will bring, so the current situation for students is very difficult. How can they commit £9,000 a year just to course fees when they don’t know what value those qualifications will bring?”
When Shilston completed his course at Cambridge, he realised that there were few jobs in the archaeological field so his father, who was a civil engineer and worked for Halcrow, guided him into engineering geology.
“I applied for the MSc course at Imperial College but I didn’t really want another year at university so I deferred and worked for Nuttall Geotechnical Services in Colnbrook for three years,” he says. “I then went to Imperial - again with a full grant.”
After completing his masters, Shilston joined Soil Mechanics in Bracknell and says he draws on the experience gained during his eight years there all the time. “I was working as a consultant, carrying out design and also planning work - it was a rounded experience,” he says.
One job that stands out in Shilston’s mind from this period was when he was sent to Sudan for 12 weeks to support a search for gold. “I was just sent off and told to get on with it - there was no way to contact anyone for help,” he says. “It made me realise how important it is to brief people so that they can gain from the experience and also the company will get more out of them. Times are very different now though. “I didn’t even have time to consider the different geology I would be seeing while I was out there.”
Shilston joined Atkins in 1988 when it was a much smaller firm with a few thousand staff and less than 10 engineering geologists based in the UK. “I have grown up with the company and had the benefit of frequent change with either a new structure or a change in responsibility every five years or so,” he says. “Today Atkins has 18,000 staff and 250 ground engineering posts in the UK alone.”
Shilston’s Atkins contemporaries have also remained constant with managing director of groundengineering David French and chief engineers Martin Kemp and Martin Whitbread all starting at the firm around the same time as Shilston and all are still there.
“I have been allowed to evolve to become technical director,” he says.
Part of this evolution also involved him using his archaeological skills - which he believed after leaving Cambridge would remain just a hobby. “I went to my boss in the late 1980s and suggested that we hire some archaeologists to start a heritage group,” he says. “I wanted to apply geology with archaeology to provide a complete solution for clients.”
The new team’s first task was working on a road widening scheme in Catterick, North Yorkshire. “The existing road was in a cutting that was partly in natural ground but also went through the remains of the Roman town, so we proposed a piled solution into the natural that allow the road to span over the archaeology and leave it undamaged,” says Shilston. “South of Catterick we proposed realigning the road away from the archaeological remains and managed to demonstrate that the cost of stripping the land and an archaeological investigation was greater than the cost of constructing a retaining wall that the realigned route would call for.”
While he admits it was good to put his archaeological skills to commercial use, he says he still questions whether the current generation will invest in themselves when they don’t know what will be valuable before their careers start. “Without these skills they are not as versatile as they could be,” he says.
Shilston’s archaeological knowledge combined with his geotechnical skills led to a number of speaking opportunities and publication of papers that helped to position his name in the industry. It also led to his involvement as an expert witness for a number of high-profile construction claims overseas.
Throughout this work, which has led to lots of overseas travel and time away from home, Shilston has always been an active member of the Geological Society. He joined the committee of the Engineering Group in the early 1990s and was also meeting secretary for the group for a while.
After a stint with the Fellowship Committee, Shilston joined the main council and in 2007 - the
society’s bi-centennial year - he became professional secretary. “One of the key tasks during this period was to take forward the work of the previous professional secretary Ruth Allington and change the society’s approach to handling the chartership process,” he says. “In the past applications were handled as they came in, which had evolved from an era when the society was smaller. We now have an annual timetable for the process with clear application and assessment dates. It took three years to get things moving and the society now has a chartership officer to handle the task.”
The time it took to make this change is a clear driver to Shilston to make the most of his two years as president of the society. He knows he will not be able to achieve all his aims during his two-year tenure, but hopes to have created the building blocks for his successor to take things forward.
One thing that Shilston is clear on, though, is that the industry must be prepared for the full impact the increase in student fees will have on numbers coming into the industry as students emerge with greater debts.