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Viewpoint: Where will next generation come from?

Will engineers have the monopoly on major projects?, asks former BAA and Railtrack major projects director Simon Murray

I was recently asked to help identify candidates to lead one of the largest and most challenging transport projects in Europe. The brief was to find the best in the world and we set about the task anticipating that we might be about to defi ne some boundaries for capabilities in the management of major infrastructure projects. Quite quickly we came to the conclusion that there could be fewer than 50 people in the English-speaking world who have what it takes to lead a billion dollar infrastructure project.

They are predominantly white men in their 50s and it seems that the average age of this small group is increasing. This raises the question: where is the next generation of leaders of billion dollar infrastructure projects coming from?

Being an engineer, I went straight to the data. A quick analysis of the CVs of 20 of the people who are presently running these large projects yielded some interesting results. I was not surprised to discover that the average age of the group was 57 and that all but one were men. What was more illuminating was that 75% of this group had a fi rst degree in engineering and 60% had a post-graduate qualifi cation, generally in business management or fi nance. Only two people had formal qualifi cations in project management.

Most of those in the group spent their formative years in contracting, in the military or working for transport companies. All of them had experience in senior management with companies that own and operate infrastructure. And while several members of the group had worked as consultants, this tended to be towards the end of their careers.

This is a crude analysis and the group that we are looking at started out on their careers in the 1970s when the opportunities for graduates were very diff erent from today. But, we can draw some conclusions about the skills and experience needed to lead a large infrastructure project. It is important to be technically competent and to have experience in general management. But it is essential to be able to lead people and to understand the issues from the perspective of the organisations that will own and operate the completed infrastructure. Large infrastructure projects are like businesses.

They are investments in the productive capacity of the nation. While it is important that these projects are delivered on time, within budget and to quality, it is essential that they are the right investments. They must provide the right capacities, operate reliably and effi ciently and adapt to the future needs of the nation. It could be argued that the management of these projects is too important to be left to project managers.

The next generation of billion dollar projects is likely to be very diff erent to those we see today. The recent fi nancial crisis will have a profound eff ect on the fi nancing of new infrastructure for many years to come. Demographics and economics will dictate that much of the new infrastructure will be built in Asia and South America. In the West we are more likely to be investing in the renewal of our existing infrastructure and in technologies to extend its life and get more capacity out of it.

I hope and expect that the people who lead these projects will be younger and more diverse than the present incumbents. In the West we will see a generation of women engineers move forward into leadership positions. And young people who are presently getting experience on projects in India, China and South America will become available to lead projects around the world. There will still undoubtedly be white men in their 50s running large projects but more people will be competing for their jobs.

Leadership and general management skills will still defi ne the next generation, but they will have followed diff erent routes to gain their experience. There will still be some people with backgrounds in contracting and in the military but more of the next generation will have come up through power generators, transport operators and companies that provide their core technologies.

The next generation will be comfortable making decisions about the application of technologies without necessarily being experts in technology. It will also have experience in the operation of infrastructure but I predict that there will be greater movement of talent between the infrastructure sectors.

And project management will continue to play an important role in the delivery of the next generation of projects but as a set of supporting skills rather than as a fundamental infl uence on the leadership of projects.

  • Simon Murray is former major projects director at BAA and Railtrack

This feature was compiled with the help of acumen7 − a network of senior executives who have come together to off er their expertise to organisations in the public and private sectors.

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