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Masterton steps up

Presidential interview - Gordon Masterton has taken over as president of the ICE. He talked to Antony Oliver about values, professionalism and his hopes for the Institution.

There is Scottish grit beneath Gordon Masterton's warm and easy going style. He absolutely knows what he wants and where he wants to go. What he would like to do is take you with him.

Like many Scotsmen, Masterton wears his passion for civil engineering on his sleeve.

He is at his most eloquent and persuasive when talking about the profession he loves.

And there is tangible, boyish excitement at the prospect of a year in office as president of the ICE, starting next week.

'It's a fantastic opportunity to promote the value of civil engineers, ' he says.

Promoting the profession to the outside world and to the industry will be one of Masterton's key themes for the next 12 months. He intends to build on his numerous television and radio appearances over the last few months to really tell the world about the profession.

He sees publicity as essential to securing the future of the profession by emphasising its value to society at large as well as to ICE members. Masterton is the first to accept that this will not be easy and recognises that there is only so much that he can achieve in a year.

'The plan I'm setting up is a three year programme, ' he says. 'We won't have overnight success - it's a long term game.' Of course this agenda is nothing new and has, as Masterton points out, been the subject of many presidential addresses over the last two centuries. But he is defiant: 'Market forces command rewards and we have to convince the market of our worth. We have a much bigger and wider media today and certainly for civil engineering it is an untapped resource.' His plans go beyond getting civil engineering on the news agenda and trying to boost awareness of it among scriptwriters and novelists.

A tough brief, perhaps. But Masterton is ready for the battle against the cynics and apathy that have dogged the profession as he tries to look outwards.

'What gets me angry is civil engineers that complain consistently about lack of status but do little about it themselves, ' he says. 'Apathetic engineers really do annoy me. They need to be constantly reminded of the great job they do and contribution that they make to society.' So while he has been intimately involved with the ICE's recent internal overhaul to refocus on regionalisation, he is clear that now is the time to switch the agenda back to members and the outside world.

He says dramatic changes are still to happen at the ICE over the next two years, and insists that this will be all about meeting members' needs. 'We cannot be complacent. We have to continue to monitor what we do and whether the ICE is effective or not, ' he says. 'We need to take stock this year and actually prove its value.' Masterton's 30 year career - spent entirely with Babtie in its various incarnations - has left him 'deeply proud of being a civil engineer'.

Perhaps of all recent vice presidents he has popped up most frequently on national and local media to explain engineering aspects of news stories - from 9/11, the South East Asian Tsunami and Hurricane Rita. Even during this interview he breaks off to field, with relish, media inquiries ahead of the launch of the 2005 ICE State of the Nation report.

He also intends, like last president Colin Clinton, to be out and about in the industry to talk to engineers with his own series of President's question time sessions. 'Not 123 though, ' he adds hastily, referring to Clinton's tally. 'There are other things that I want to do.' One of these will be an open invitation to join him for breakfast at the ICE whenever he is in London. Masterton does not promise to pick up the bill, but will appreciate the company.

One of the most serious items on Masterton's presidential agenda surrounds health and safety, specifically the need to support professional engineers as they struggle within an increasingly litigious environment.

'Ethics, integrity and professionalism need to underpin every thing that we do, ' he explains. 'There are a lot of pressures in the industry to sacrifice these values for the benefits of cheapness and programme. We must not do that.

'We need to get a message across to the government, the HSE and those that have health and safety as a duty of care, that to change behaviour we must incentivise rather than instil fear.

Increasing punitive measures is creating a climate of fear and exhaustion rather than encouraging improvement in safety.' Masterton says he is keen to find better ways to investigate when accidents occur and to swing the focus of investigations back to finding where responsibility lies without destroying the personal or professional integrity of those involved.

Much of Masterton's next year will without doubt concentrate on young professionals.

Encouraging the next generation of engineers is something he feels is crucial and he has nurtured emerging talent throughout his career.

During his presidency he is particularly keen to emphasise the value of mentoring and learning from each other. It is something with which he has achieved great success through his work as a tutor with the Open University, an honorary lecturer at Strathclyde University and visiting professor at the University of Paisley.

'Working engineers need to understand that they should take time to pass on knowledge and experience to younger engineers, ' he explains.

Hence his 'President's apprenticeship' scheme to recruit a number of graduate engineers to shadow and assist him throughout the year, attending his meetings and helping with the research for speeches.

Masterton is a Royal Commissioner on the Ancient & Historic Monuments of Scotland, and is keenly aware that the Brunel bicentenary celebrations fall within his presidential year.

This, he says, presents a great opportunity.

'What can we learn from the past- What can we learn from engineers like Brunel that we can use today-' he asks. 'I don't want to look at the past to celebrate it just for its own sake.

It's about taking the useful bits from the past and passing them on.' So it has been throughout Masterton's engineering career.

While civil engineering was not exactly in his blood, he says that growing up watching the Forth Road Bridge being constructed probably had an influence on his choice of career. 'I was 10 years old when it opened and I think that was quite a defining moment, ' he says. He is now a trustee of the Forth Bridges Visitor Centre.

'I studied civil engineering because I didn't want to study pure maths or physics. I looked at subjects where you could really create something and leave a permanent record - that really appealed.' He covered his bases at the start by taking a course at Edinburgh with a common first year with architecture.

Should he have continued along the architecture route?

'No, ' comes the resolute answer.

'I'd have been terrible!' Thirty years later, now aged 51, he finds himself running the environmental division of Jacobs Babtie with 900 people and turning over ú50M a year.

'That's one of the top jobs in civil engineering and it's a pleasure and a privilege. I am enthused by what we do as an organisation and what the engineers working for me can deliver, and I still get a huge buzz from winning a new project.' Despite working for just one firm since his graduation, Masterton's career has spanned a huge variety of disciplines since joining Babtie Shaw & Morton, as it was in 1976. He started in marine works, designing buildings at the famous Govan Shipyard before moving on to design coastal protection schemes. After that he headed to site and worked in tunnelling for four years on the Kielder tunnels.

Masterton returned to academia in 1981 to gain an MSc in concrete structures from Imperial College. He spent time as a bridge designer working mainly on structures in Scotland, including the River Annan Bridge, the Nith Viaducts and other motorway structures, including a prototype anchored earth wall with TRL.

By 1993 he was a director of Babtie Group and between 1995 and 1997 worked in the Far East establishing an office in Kuala Lumpur. Returning to the UK, he fronted the bridges and building structures division before switching to environment.

Masterton plans to be another working president and spend two days a week working for Jacobs Babtie, so time with his wife Linda and his two university age children, Matthew and Natalie will be increasingly precious.

Time for sailing on the Clyde and playing 'social level' tennis and badminton at his local club will also be squeezed.

After Colin Clinton's presidential address in the Great Hall of One Great George Street, Masterton is returning to the Thomas Telford theatre. Yet he insists that his presidency is no return to the traditional.

'I've taken the annual dinner out of London for the first time in history, ' he explains. 'The 131st annual dinner will be in Glasgow, ' he beams. The ceremonial addressing of the haggis is a highlight for Masterton, and anyone who has attended dinner hosted by the Scottish region will appreciate that 23 November is likely to be a special night.

But old customs stop after the kilt comes off. Masterton is all about moving forward - forward to help modern ICE members demonstrate their value in the modern world.

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