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Letters: A lot of talk and little action

Recent letters in NCE have flagged up some important issues, some old chestnuts and some long-standing concerns - namely the status of engineers in society and the role of women in the profession. The restoration of the Dawlish rail link was a triumph for the civil engineering profession and yet some of our members seem to want to diminish it by criticism of the use of the generic term “engineer” to all those involved, and then confuse this with their own perceived lack of status of the professional engineer.

The post-nominal designation of MICE is currently confined to those who have achieved IEng or CEng status and it is there to protect society and the client. I understand that the ICE Council is considering extending the MICE designation to other grades of membership of the Institution. While I don’t believe this will help to maintain the status of the professional engineer, neither will denigrating the achievements of the engineering community at large in projects such as Dawlish and the Royal Engineers’ emergency bridge reinstatement in Workington in 2009.

For far longer than I care to remember, some members of the ICE have wrung their hands at their (own) perceived lack of status of the civil engineer, often imploring “the ICE” to do something about it.

Women engineers

Crossrail Project Manager Nisrine Chartouny_ leads the construction of the new _200 million Crossrail Farringdon station in the City of London

It might be worth remembering that “the ICE” is actually 80,000 members and that it is a charity devoted to the public good. The working members deliver infrastructure across the globe; they are members of society, their local communities. Many are parents. They have got plenty to be proud of, but I wonder how many of those who bemoan their lack of status have offered to give talks at schools and in their communities, or for that matter at regional meetings of the ICE. I suspect precious few.

And if they have, I do hope they haven’t whinged about how badly they feel they are perceived by society at large. The key to the status they crave is by extolling what they have achieved and not by self-pity.

And so to the role of women in the profession. This is a more serious concern. We still don’t attract enough women into civil engineering, and when we do, we so often waste their talents. So far as I can tell, women are less concerned than their male counterparts about the lack of status of the civil engineer - not because they care less about it, but rather because they are more confident of the worth of the civil engineer in society.

But their concerns - which should be important to us all - are more about the difficulties they experience in re-entering the profession after taking a career break. Of course, it is difficult to catch up technically after a few years out. But that happens to all of us. And it should be no barrier. In any event, it isn’t the be all and end all of a top flight career in engineering.

At the early stages of their careers - from university and then in consultancy and contracting - women more than hold their own. At the risk of stereotyping, women are also characterised by their ability to see the bigger picture, and their leadership and team working skills. Abilities which should be valued even more at a later stage in any engineering career, as evidenced increasingly by the number of women who are at the head of the civil engineering profession today.

I won’t name names, but they are there in our leading consultants and contractors. But there are still not enough. So what is holding them back? I sincerely hope it is not male engineers anxious about their own status.

The key to the status of engineering in society is successful project delivery, innovation, and attracting and retaining the best of all our talents. Just do it. The rest will follow.

» Paul Jowitt, ICE past president,

My despair at out-of-date ­attitudes

I have been reading the letters in NCE over recent months with an increasing sense of despair. Some of the attitudes and opinions would not be out of place in the early part of the last century.

I’ve spent over a decade working on site, enjoying the process of watching the design transfer from paper to reality in front of me, as well as dealing with the day to day challenges that construction presents. I find it quite insulting to read that some engineers believe only men can appreciate and understand the technical aspects of this.

If the numbers entering, and remaining in, engineering were enough to meet the demands of our society you could claim that this was an academic (if depressing) argument, but it isn’t. There are not enough people entering engineering, technology and science professions in this country. That half of the population (and many ethnic minorities) are put off from even considering it means this trend is likely to continue.

During my career I was often the only woman besides the secretary and cleaner on site. If as a profession we continue with the status quo ignoring this problem, even that may soon be a rarity. The arguments over money and status will be academic if our profession no longer exists. I will support all initiatives that encourage people into the profession, and we do ourselves no favours by burying our heads in the sand to the challenges that lie ahead of us.

Kathleen Harrison (M),

All of us have to a duty to make a difference

As chair of the ICE’s equality and diversity committee I am pleased to see that the recent NCE articles regarding gender imbalance and sexism have touched a nerve.

While the ICE is engaged in a number of initiatives aimed at addressing these issues, I argue that we - society at large - are the root cause. We have a duty as parents, friends and relations to offer children the greatest opportunities without the constraints of gender bias. We have a duty as employers, colleagues, managers and recruiters to ensure that behaviours and language is inclusive and not unacceptable on any grounds.

We should also remember that any change will have a knock-on benefit to us all. You as an individual are never too small to make a difference - we all have a responsibility to instigate change within our own spheres and organisations.

Daniel Hooper (F), chair, ICE equality and diversity committee,

Prejudice is the path to poor performance

David Wood makes the case absolutely for the need to root out sexism (Letters 22-29 May). If he was involved in the assessment of candidates for a job, he has stated very clearly how he pre-judges all women as being less suitable than men for the construction industry. However, I find his logic flawed and his appreciation of civil engineering to be very sad.
Like his daughters, I and many of my contemporaries kept pets, but the only person I can think of who built the cages was an older brother who went on to become not an engineer but a vicar.
Although I never built a cage, I went on to work in a logging camp and on major construction sites in Canada before becoming a chartered engineer. Of the many managers I worked under, one of the two I consider to have been by far the best was a woman.
That he then sums up civil engineering as predominately boring jobs like digging holes and concreting is a travesty.

Civil engineering is a vast and wonderful area of employment and we need all the skills and commitment that we can get. I hope David and others can put their prejudices to one side and see what women can offer.

Tim Webster (M),

Mixed workforce is more fun and more interesting

I have never been very convinced that women are very different to men; if we look at David Woods’ example (Letters 22-29 May), as a child I lost interest in the pet rabbit project once the hutch was built.

However, if it is true that women are better nurturers and multi-taskers, then they would make perfect engineers. I have spent most of this week nurturing my colleagues and building relationships with architects.
In between I’ve been multi-tasking desperately; writing fee proposals, arranging site visits, doing some drawing work and planning for the next few weeks. I have also dug a hole and looked at Eurocodes; activities which I also enjoy.

I also don’t agree that medicine is more interesting than engineering. My sister is a doctor - I don’t think she is much of a nurturer but she was the one that sorted the rabbits out when they died. However, I think her career has been harder than mine and less fun. I also think that having children is a red herring, although I took almost a year off when both my children were born, a two-year break is nothing in a 40-year working life.

I have possibly made my career more interesting, more flexible and better paid by starting my own company almost a decade ago and then taking up interesting opportunities, including working abroad. Ultimately the biggest reason to have a mix of gender in a work place is because it is more fun; diversity makes life interesting. I think it is also good for an organisation; your learning is quicker if you work with people from a variety of backgrounds.

Ruth Haynes (M),

A cut in HS2’s speed will cut its profitability

When Rob Holden stood down from Crossrail in 2011, he would have been a great candidate to lead High Speed 2 (HS2). In that role, he would have had ready access to all of the work looking at options on alignments and operating speeds that he now calls into question (NCE 22-29 May). The studies have been done stretching back over 12 years and show HS2 Ltd has made the right call.

The 400km/h design speed is a facility that HS2 Ltd firmly believes should be built into a design that has to stand the test of time. The start-up train fleet in 2026 will probably have a top speed capability of 360km/h -and be scheduled to operate normally at 320km/h. Is future-proofing for a +10% top speed so unwise?

The idea that new rail capacity should be provided on indirect alignments (avoiding the Chilterns) and with lower operating speeds - perhaps the same as today’s 200km/h - would mean the impacts shift elsewhere, and incidentally, would be experienced over a longer extended route. But there is another worry.

Investors - in this case the government - would clearly not get the full set of benefits that HS2 offers. Neither would private sector investors be prepared to pay so much back to HM Treasury if in due course a concession model is established as has been done so effectively on HS1 (where Rob Holden is chairman today). There would be even more commercial value created in HS2, and an infrastructure concession is just one way of realising it. In the HS1 case, a 30-year term yielded 33% of the capital outlay - £2.1bn in 2011.

Jim Steer (M),

Integration is key to better outcomes

II would commend the excellent article produced by Nelson Ogunshakin in last week’s NCE 22-29 May).

Our market is a dynamic place and our customers will ultimately be the judge of which business models work for their needs. In our experience, the combination of a strong consultancy with an operating business is a platform for knowledge share, the outcome of which is an improvement in product quality and service which ultimately drives efficiency.

The hard line between contractor and consultant is softened considerably where businesses are prepared to embrace integration. What emerges is an infrastructure company that can provide standalone consultancy, delivery or a fully integrated end-to-end service.

The driving factor for large infrastructure companies will be the ability to take and manage risk and the ability to drive efficiency and value over the long term without losing engineering excellence.

It seems that the Association for Consultancy and Engineering is really coming to terms with the changing dynamic in our market, understanding the benefit of true collaboration between private and public sector and the value of an end-to-end service model.

Andy Milner (F), managing director, Amey, The Sherard Building, Edmund Halley Road, Oxford OX4 4DQ

Hong Kong team were fine winners

Congratulations to all participants in the recent Merit competition and particularly the winning MTR team (NCE 15 May). Although not wishing to take anything away from the remaining entrants, a point we might take for granted is that teams from Hong Kong will have tackled the exercise by using a second language, English - a simple fact which in my view makes their victory all the more laudable.

Ben Zabulis (M), 135 Victoria Road, Kirkby-in-Ashfield, Nottingham

Metro beats Welsh road plan hands down

It was good to see plain speaking on the UK roads programme from James McColl (NCE 22-29 May), particularly his last paragraph (building roads irrespective of the need). Here in South Wales there is a glaring example of a zombie, a new length of M4 across the precious Gwent Levels.

This proposal has been killed several times over the last 12 years, by conservationists (on environmental and heritage grounds) and the Welsh Government (on cost grounds), but here it is again, promoted by chancellor George Osborne, ignorant of the strong case against spending £1.2bn on what would be a white elephant.

I won’t go through all the grounds for not building another length of M4, but refer to the Welsh Government report of two years ago on a South Wales area metro system. This is what is really needed, and will relieve the M4 from a high level of local commuting.

There is a real resilience problem around the Brynglas Tunnels, but this could be resolved by a much cheaper and shorter improvement to the A48 Newport Southern Distributor Road and the former Llanwern Steelworks Road, promoted by ICE Fellow Stuart Cole and backed by a strong group of all the local ecological and conservation organisations. This would also permanently benefit road transport into Newport.

I am concerned that both ICE Wales Cymru and the CITB have thrown their hats into the ring to support this misconceived road proposal. Is promoting particular schemes an ICE function?

Vic Warren (M),

Why Top 100 FTSE companies get it right

At a Crossrail breakfast briefing recently it was mentioned that the most successful businesses in the FTSE 100 index had a better gender mix at board level, demonstrating that we all stand to improve performance by actively including and supporting women into the industry.

Unfortunately there are always people who cannot see beyond gender stereotyping. Proof example in last week’s letters page. It is our responsibility to actively inform girls and boys that there are exceptional career opportunities in all areas of civil engineering.

I do not support the idea of positive discrimination, and as such my new youth initiative of early stage introductions to construction will be open to all young people.

Rachel Morris (M), ­

Good home for old mags

Here the Shropshire group of retired and employed members in the West Midlands have been passing our NCE copies to 15 secondary schools and two colleges of further education since September 2010, and also to Kings School Chester.

We are happy for other groups to copy us.

Professor Emeritus Roger Duffell (F retd),

French find the gap in their ­platform plans

Mark Hansford may be correct to enthuse about “smart” French engineers (NCE 12 May). The design of the high speed railway line from Bordeaux to Tours is certainly outstanding.

However, the following week we heard how French train operator SNCF had discovered that 2,000 of its new trains are too wide for many of its regional platforms. It appears that only platforms less than 30 years old were measured and it will cost tens of millions of Euros to adjust over 1,000 platforms.

Meanwhile, as Edinburgh Trams go live on 31 May, spare a thought for my dedicated team who assisted the council engineers in future proofing the proposed tram extension to Leith during the current public realm improvement works.

The complex mix of multiple utility services, high voltage cable tunnels, Second World War air raid shelters, a rail bridge, combined with existing bus lanes and future cycleway and pedestrian crossings posed considerable challenges for the engineering team.

However, integrated planning and innovative multi-duct and drainage systems, and transitional construction make-ups and kerbing have helped to address some of the financial and disruption issues that plagued the first phase of the tram project.

So, compared to French rail engineers, maybe British engineers aren’t so dumb.

Brian Pope (M),

  • Editor’s note: Thanks Brian and the (many) other readers who have also noted the huge irony regarding SNCFs train troubles.


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