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Talking Point with Jenny Austin

Overseas development could help fast track development of younger engineers’ skills

The famous 19th century American astronomer Maria Mitchell once said: “We travel to learn; and I have never been in any country where they did not do something better than we do it, think some thoughts better than we think, catch some inspiration from heights above our own.”

I think the same could be said to be true of engineering and is something I have had the benefit of through overseas working. My experience leads me to ask if using international experience could be the key to solving the current skills shortage facing civil engineering. My experiences on my assignment in Singapore and sincemy return have made me realise that while this was a very challenging time for me, it was a great period of learning and development. I grew as an engineer.

Ground conditions in overseas locations bring both similar and different challenges to those in the UK. Practices in ground investigation and construction are different overseas, sometimes only subtly, but still different. Working overseas isn’t all about just taking on other practices, it is also an opportunity to share the best of our practices where they will bring benefit to the project overseas.

For me the exposure to working in cultures outside of the UK was a brilliant experience. In the process of learning about Singaporean practice, I understood more about UK practice and myself - it triggered questions about why we do things the way we do.

“Maybe we should be looking to create more international links with suppliers and clients to enable our young engineers to spend time overseas early in their careers.”

Should this experience be captured as part of routine training objectives? Even in UK-based firms and organisations, surely the extra dimensions of thinking and alternative approaches, the flexibility developed as part of adapting to different cultures and different working practice overseas? Maybe as an industry we should be looking to create more international links with suppliers and clients to enable our young engineers to spend time overseas early in their careers, perhaps as a secondment or exchange? I believe that this would not only open up thinking on how to approach problems but also create new business opportunities too.

It seems to me that perhaps using overseas placements in this way offers an opportunity to close the skills gap that exists in engineers of five to 10 years’ experience. Through developing younger engineers using overseas placements there is an opportunity for accelerated development, an intensive broadening of experiences and testing of understanding with the right mentoring to support this.

With the global economy as sensitive as it is, I think more engagement with our overseas counterparts is essential not only to development, but also economic survival. Economic resilience depends on the mobility and skills of our engineers, as well as the networks and experiences they develop as a result.

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