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Why are French engineers so much better respected?

Mark Hansford

Another French lesson this week, with NCE featuring an update on construction of France’s latest high speed railway line from Bordeaux to Tours. I had the privilege to go and see for myself the progress made just before Easter, and it’s startling.

The pace of the project is down, really, to privately finance. This gives concessionare Lisea all the reasons it needs to get on with it as its project remains all cost and no income until the trains start running.

Any idea that can make construction go faster is worth looking at.

But it still needs a contractor - or contractors - willing to take a chance and bring innovations to play.

And this is where the real lesson lies. In the Vinci-led Cosea construction joint venture there is a contractor that has the scale to take on risks and the technical expertise to manage them.

As Cosea project director Gilles Godard puts it: “We have scale; we are putting our own money in. It’s risky. So we focus on the technical. We employ our own designers; the design is driven by the construction; and that is driven by the needs of concession. So it allows solutions such as those we are deploying.”

And that’s something we really are not good at in the UK. Indeed, it’s more than a touch ironic that in the same week France’s Vinci is showcasing the virtues of having its design-teams in-house, Britain’s biggest contractor Balfour Beatty announces that it is to dispense with its design team.

Why did Balfour Beatty’s acquisition of Parsons Brinckerhoff not work? If you are to believe Balfour Beatty, it is that UK clients are turning their back on design and build; taking more control of their designs.

I suspect it is more fundamental than that. Could it be that it takes more than bolting on a designer to make a contractor more technically-innovative?

And here maybe there is something else to be gleaned from France.

Because as you’ll see in our Letters page this week, there remains great umbrage towards the 300 contracting men and women who toiled night and day to repair the storm-ravaged railway line at Dawlish.

Umbrage because they dared allow themselves to be called engineers. Even though by the second of the three definitions for engineer given in the Oxford English Dictionary, they clearly are.

French engineers are bemused by this issue. Arguably they are worse off than British engineers: their profession is unregulated, there are no licensing or registration requirements and the term “engineer” is not legally protected. Yet they don’t seek to change any of this. They know they are respected.

Why? Engineers graduating from one of France’s 240 selective “Grandes Ecoles d’Ingénieur” with a “Diplôme d’Ingénieur” are smart. Their degrees contain advanced mathematics and include high-level theoretical teaching. Practical applications are addressed separately in small tutorial sessions, workshops and through real-world experience.

Paid internships are an integral part of the programmes. They emphasise knowledge of the business world and the study of foreign languages. And students must demonstrate their ability to think critically and to communicate effectively in speaking and in writing in French or in English.

That’s why French engineers are well respected; they’re smart. And I suspect that’s also why French contractors are willing and able to deliver such clever solutions. They’re smart too.

  • Mark Hansford is NCE’s interim editor

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