A room full of 200 industry leaders at Civils2007 last week applauded the very best of civil engineering's newest recruits as NCE celebrated its annual Graduate Awards. Six finalists, shortlisted from a record entry of 104, shared prize money totalling more than £2,700.
Overall winner, Arup geotechnical engineer Robert Harding, received a £1,000 cheque and a specially carved trophy.
He then rushed off to bed to grab a few hours sleep in preparation for nightshift working in his role with the Crossrail design team.
Two joint runners-up scooped £500 each, with the three highly commended finalists winning £250.
Presenter, BBC news reporter Dermot Murnaghan, told the audience that such passionate and committed young civil engineers were vital to the construction industry to ensure it retains and enhances its hard-won reputation for quality and professionalism.
A dream holiday to New York could soon be on the cards for Bryony, girlfriend of our suddenly £1,000 wealthier Graduate of the Year, Robert Harding. But it comes with one condition.
"I must visit the construction site for the city's new subway line" states Harding. "It's all hard rock tunnelling."
The 24-year-old Arup geotechnical engineer is as passionate about tunnels - even at 3am – as he is on his choice of career. Such dedication is a valuable asset in his current role as a member of the sizeable Arup/Atkins joint venture helping to design Britain's largest civils project for decades – London's £16bn Crossrail scheme.
Harding managed to swap planned consecutive nightshifts, examining London Tube tunnels so he could attend last week's awards ceremony. But, within hours of receiving the top prize, he was grabbing valuable sleep in preparation for that night's task of completing a condition survey of a Central Line tunnel running just metres from Crossrail's proposed alignment.
His desire to get up close and personal with the grimy brick linings of Victorian tunnels began six years ago with a Honda Civic car.
Along with fellow students at Hampshire's Alton Sixth Form college, Harding took on a Royal Academy of Engineering challenge to convert the car to run on 'zero emissions' liquid nitrogen. They achieved it, with the resulting 100km/hour prototype claimed to be one of the first made anywhere.
More important for the 18-year-old was the realisation that he wanted a career offering him the challenge to "achieve something that could influence other people's lives." Civil engineering, he argues, is one of the few professions that can create that opportunity.
Already, Harding dreams of one day standing with his children in front of a structure and saying proudly: "I helped build that."
What Harding calls "a slight wobble" while at Bristol University resulted in him spending a summer vacation working for a major city accountant.
"My colleagues were bragging about high starting salaries, so I got quite proficient at creating interesting financial spreadsheets," he recalls.
"But I foresaw doing just that, day after day, whereas construction is about doing something interestingly different every day."
A later, even more risky decision, to take a year out of his civils course at Bristol to become the university student union's full-time communications officer left him, he claims, with a valuable insight into being a good designer.
"I represented all 13,000 students in lengthy discussions over the design of a £10M student union headquarters," he says. "And I realised the importance of creating a building where the end-user's needs are paramount." Raising, often single-handed, upwards of £40,000 for numerous charities, helped win Harding two prestigious all-round achievement awards from both his civils department and the main university council.
Arup snapped him up a year ago and, on just his second day with the consultant, dispatched him to the then embryonic and uncertain Crossrail project.
That Crossrail now has a firm green light, leaves our winner literally bubbling with excitement. "I already have my dream job which, from day one, offered me bags of responsibility," he enthuses.
Sustainable design is one of Harding's career vocations and he went some way to convincing the judges that the profession should create dedicated sustainability engineers with even their own separate institution. "A respected institution could set codes and standards, ending the current, often contradictory debate, about which materials have the most embodied energy and the highest carbon footprint," he suggests.
Geotechnical engineer, Arup
First class MEng Bristol University
University and civils department outstanding achievement awards
Designed prototype, liquid nitrogen-powered car
Joint runner-up, Kee Leung, who grew up in Mauritius, owes much of his decision to become a civil engineer to his next-door neighbour,
a building contractor.
His house seemed to be constantly surrounded by diggers and dump trucks, encouraging the then 10-year-old Leung to find out what thesefascinating machines did.
The result was a move to the UK to study a combined course in structural engineering and architecture at Sheffield University. Clearly talented, Leung won substantial scholarships to fund his studies at Sheffield, and later at Cambridge University, where he took a masters degree in philosophy in sustainable engineering.
He enhanced his interest in sustainable construction by returning briefly to Mauritius to study what he claims is an ideal, yet under utilised, low carbon building material, bamboo.
"In developing countries bamboo has unfortunately become a material associated with being poor, as villagers want only to use higher status brick or concrete." He explains. "I hope one day to return and set up my own consultancy in a building made of bamboo that I have grown in the same plot."
This ambition to lead by example should be taken up by Britain's consultants, he argues. Engineers should be doing much more to convince both their clients, and building end-users, to think about the long-term benefits of sustainability.
"It makes no short-term commercial sense for clients – or engineers dependant entirely on clients' fees – to insist on the luxury of sustainability," asserts the 26-year-old graduate. " So, as designers, we have a duty to be much braver and educate the wider public on the overall advantages of sustainable engineering."
As a design engineer with Ramboll Whitbybird, Leung already sits on the consultant's sustainability taskforce.
Leung still nurtures his love of architecture and hopes, once he is chartered, to also qualify as an architect. "The two professions complement eachother, " he claims. "The best designs result from multidisciplinary teams."
The architecture of urban landscape may benefit from his £500 runners-up award as he intends to donate some of the prize to an organisation called Trees for Cities. This new charity's main aim is to protect and enhance the green space in our larger urban areas.
Design engineer, Ramboll Whitbybird
2:1 MEng Sheffield University
MPhil engineering for sustainable development, Cambridge University
Thinks bamboo should be the sustainable building material of the century
"Uncle Ben's a builder," boasted Alexander, the five-year-old nephew of joint runner-up Ben Freedman as he was shown a school his then undergraduate uncle had helped design during a summer vacation.
"Oh no he's not," thought Freedman, studying for an MEng in civil engineering at Bristol University.
It was this innocent comment that fuelled Freedman's determination not only to really become a civil engineer, but also to devote his third year university project to creating a website that explains to the public what the profession is really all about.
Aimed at schoolchildren and their teachers, the website proved a hit. Freedman was invited to visit several schools, explaining to some 200 13-year-olds the difference between a builder and a civil engineer.
With his father, a doctor, young Freedman had naturally looked at the medical profession. "Engineering is all about solving problems that can create a positive impact on a wide section of society," he says. "Medicine could be equally satisfying, but usually helps only the patient being treated."
Now a 24-year-old graduate engineer with Building Design Partnership (BDP), his determination to promote the profession continues. BDP employs only a handful of civil engineers alongside nearly 1,000 structural designers and architects.
Most of the civil engineers are based in the consultant's Belfast division, with Freedman, in the Bristol office, one of the few in England. His employer is already crediting Freedman as influential in BDP offering more clients a civil engineering service.
"His enthusiasm and determination to develop the business, and deliver high-quality solutions, is outstanding," BDP's training director told the judges.
Such praise is being reinforced with action as BDP is backing Freedman in a personally created campaign to project manage the construction of a school for 500 children in a Nepalese village.
More immediate on his to-do list is another personal initiative – a "grab a grad" speed networking exercise planned for this week. The ICE-backed idea is for 50 of his graduate colleagues to each spend just five minutes face to face with a similar number of Bristol civils undergraduates. The aim is to convince the university students that – yes you've guessed – civil engineering is a lot more than being just a builder.
Graduate civil engineer Building Design Partnership
2:1 MEng Bristol University
Royal Academy of Engineering design award
Masterminded charity-based project to build a school in Nepal
For someone who, at school, thought civil engineering a far from glamorous, male-dominated career, Helen Wehrmann has certainly proved both conceptions wrong.
At Imperial College she won accolades for outstanding academic achievement, plus a much-coveted Royal Academy of Engineering
leadership award. And she rubbished the male bias by being chosen to lead a 30-strong team of civils undergraduates, tasked with building a 4m-high working earth dam.
It was on the tarmac of a disused RAF airfield in Norfolk that she won her spurs, overseeing the creation of this 20m-long dam for five days.
"We all got a bit wet, but the dam held when it was impounded with water from hosepipes," she recalls.
"It proved so efficient that, in the end, the artificial concrete slab gorge, formed to house the dam, collapsed first."
Now a 23-year-old structural engineer with Jacobs, Wehrmann's leadership qualities were further rewarded when, earlier this year she was invited to join the Royal Academy's prestigious Executive Engineers programme.
Outside work, she has been practicing her team skills from the age of 11, when she started playing hockey. Not only does she now play at international level, winning two England caps, but she also specialises in mixed-sex hockey teams.
"She has a clear passion for her career and should develop into an inspiring engineer,"
said the judges.
Structural engineer, Jacobs
First-class MEng, Imperial College
Royal Academy of Engineering leadership award and selected for Executive Engineers programme.
Internationally qualified hockey playerHighly commended
Looking back, our highly commended graduate Nik Socratous had little real choice but to follow a career in construction. His structural engineer Dad, and architect Mum, still run their joint design practice back home in Cyprus.
From aged 10, Socratous' fascination with his parents' technical drawings would regularly result in his construction of cardboard and plastic
models based on their plans of the building currently being designed.
"There was no way I wanted to follow my elder brother into accountancy, and initially I wanted to be an architect like my Mum," he recalls.
"But I changed my mind to structural engineering because I believe it gives me more overall control of a building's design."
"Academically flawless," muttered the judges with just a hint of envy, as they noted his string of academic achievements at Cambridge University.
Socratous was top of the class, or thereabouts, throughout his four-year degree, in both his civils department and the university's entire 300-strong multidisciplinary engineering division. And he can boast a mantelshelf of at least half a dozen major academic prizes.
Now a structural engineer with Arup, he confesses to still being totally hooked on design work.
In just three months of joining the consultant last year, he had proved his worth as a structural engineer by designing a cost-efficient concrete foundation raft for a 22-storey building – a design that saved the client nearly £100,000. "Instead of just adopting inherently conservative design codes, I went back to basic analytical analysis and produced a thinner, less heavily reinforced slab," explains the 25-year-old.
"He can offer structural engineering design well beyond the norm for someone at this early career stage," says his training director.
His proudest achievement to date is his involvement in a competition to design a £1.5M footbridge over a Yorkshire motorway. The Arup submission, based largely on his design, has just been shortlisted from a total entry of 110 – even more than NCE got for the Graduate Awards!
Structural engineer Arup
First class MEng Cambridge University
Winner of six major academic awards
Saved client around £100,000 with his cost-efficient foundation designHighly commended
Added to Bob Geldoff's considerable achievements with his mid-1980s Live Aid concerts, is the conversion of a then three-year-old Birmingham girl to civil engineering.
"I remember asking my Mum why people in Africa needed our help," says highly commended Jenny Morrison. Her mother's reply that African communities lacked running water and flushing toilets, resulted in the very young Jenny sitting for hours with her civil engineer grandad.
She was fascinated by his detailed drawings of a Nottingham sewerage system he had designed. "I was very proud of him and his job sounded both worthwhile and fun," says the now 24-year-old graduate engineer with Atkins.
In the years between Live Aid and Atkins, Morrison has packed in a string of achievements.
Heading her CV highlights are several academic prizes at Newcastle University and the construction management of a community centre in Uganda.
Yet, asked by the judges to name her proudest achievement, she talks of conceiving and producing for Atkins that little known pantomime "Snow White on a Construction site".
"Turning a bunch of engineers into actors, proved quite a challenge," she recalls.
"A socially minded engineer with bags of enthusiasm and a real desire to make an impact," was the judges' summary of her achievements so far.
Graduate engineer Atkins
2:1 MEng Newcastle University
Cassie and Pescod university academic achievement prizes
Helped fundraise for, and build, a community centre in Uganda
NCE Graduate of the Year Rob Harding shows off his trophy to fellow winners at last week's awards ceremony, held at Civils 2007.
NCE editor Antony Oliver and BBC news presenter Dermot Murnaghan praised Harding's "leadership, passion and enthusiasm for civil engineering" since graduating from Bristol University last year.
Harding, a geotechnical engineer with Arup, plus the two runners-up, Kee Leung from Ramboll Whitbybird and Ben Freedman from Building Design Partnership will meet with construction minister Stephen Timms next month.
The 2007 NCE Graduate Awards are sponsored by: Amey, Arup, Atkins, BAA, Balfour Beatty, Black and Veatch, FaberMaunsell, Gifford, Hays Consulting Engineering, The ICE, Morrison Construction, Mott McDonald, Mouchel, Transport for London and WSP group.
There is much to celebrate in the world of civil engineering; not least the fact that the industry is attracting some very bright and ambitious young people. It is true that there are perhaps not enough, but the brightest and the best are excellent.
This year, NCE's Graduate Awards attracted another record entry of over 100 young engineers, all of whom have been in the world of work for just one year since graduating. The standard was very high, and the six finalists thrilled the judges both with their early maturity and with what they were already able to achieve for their employers.
This impressive standard is something we should all celebrate. Our universities, which provide the deep understanding of the science
that underpins the art of engineering, can be rightly proud of their efforts. And the broadening of their courses over recent years is clearly having an effect.
There is, of course, opportunity and a need for further change - and that was reflected in responses given by the six finalists. The judges asked them what non-engineering options would have helped prepare them even better for their chosen career. A common theme in their replies was that a better understanding of the social sciences, economics and how to apply their scientific knowledge would have been welcome.
There is every reason to rise to this challenge. The problems facing society at large, and the need to create a better and sustainable
built environment, can only be solved by engineers with imagination, interdisciplinary understanding, and with a confidence that comes
with knowledge and experience.
Increasingly, such skills will only come about through a positive partnership between employers, academe and the professional institutions working together to make the difference. But the talent is in the pipeline, and the judges were given a clear sight of the potential.
All we need to do is get on with it.
Chairman of judges Richard Haryott