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On-site experience - Short sited?

Graduates who sat their ICE professional review last month were the first not required to have gained site experience first. Ruby Kitching assesses the implications.

Throwing out the baby with the bath water, is how Atkins Rail head of bridge engineering Chris Fry describes the ICE's decision to ditch the prerequisite for graduates to have site experience ahead of becoming chartered. He is livid.

'This has huge implications on cost, safety and buildability, ' he says. 'Unless graduates get out there and see sites, they will lack 3D awareness and there will always be that [knowledge] gap between design and construction.' The ICE core objective which referred to site experience was pulled in March this year and graduates sitting the review this month will be the first to go through training schemes without having had to work on a construction site.

With the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) getting ever tougher on designers over accidents on site, the idea that some chartered engineers may have no first-hand practical experience of how structures are built is a worrying prospect, says consultant Andrew Allan.

Allan was featured in NCE last year (13 May 2004) after enduring a long trial which eventually acquitted him. The door of an aircraft hanger designed by Allan fell and killed a worker who was installing it. He was cleared only after contractors admitted that he had provided enough safety information on drawings which should have prevented the accident. Allan believes that his time spent on site enabled him to provide this safety information.

'You can't possibly design with health and safety in mind unless you have an idea of how it will be implemented, ' he says.

'Engineering is a practical science and if you don't consider the application of your job then you're not an engineer'.

The enefits of site experience enable designers to appreciate the practical constraints of construction, 'whether it's working at height or in confined spaces, or understanding how to eliminate the need for jack hammers, ' adds Allan.

He is outraged by the ICE's shift from specifying a strict one year period on site for all officebased engineers, to reducing it to less specific training objectives, and now eliminating it altogether (see box).

'It's nonsense, ' he states.

The ICE's reasoning behind the move is to put greater emphasis on the quality of experience gained.

'Previously, graduates spent a year on site regardless of what they learned, ' says ICE vice president Jean Venables. 'The fact now is that everyone must meet the core objectives-I see the perception [that perhaps you don't need site experience anymore] but we recognise and encourage site experience for the added value it brings'.

The Institution of Structural Engineers still recommends that graduates get around six month's site experience before attempting its exam. But membership and qualifications manager Darren Byrne emphasises that it is not a 'hard and fast rule.

'The concept is about competence and gaining the appropriate experience on site, not just about the time spent, ' he says.

Some industry experts see the ICE's decision as pandering to the needs of employers. ICE membership support executive Chris Rickards spent 14 years as a regional liaison officer in London and the Thames Valley region, visiting thousands of graduates in hundreds of design offi ces.

In his experience, smaller consultants are unable to afford the cost of releasing and replacing valuable graduates for year-long periods, and labels it 'an expensive luxury' for many.

'Good companies still do secondments, but not always a full year because they can't afford it, ' he says.

'The point isn't just to send people on site for the sake of it - companies need to see the value in sending them'.

The 'value' is in developing a well-rounded civil engineer capable of understanding design and construction issues, argues Allan. But there is also a minority who believe that design and construction should be served by separate camps.

'You have two different sorts of engineers - the engineer who's theoretical and the other who's practical and wants to deal with people, ' says Mick Foote, a civil engineer and managing director of Tube contractor Metronet Rail SSL. He admits he subscribes to the 'separate' theory.

Imperial College head of civil engineering David Nethercot is also unconvinced of the importance of sending design graduates to spend a year working on a construction site.

'Serving time on site can be a waste of time for able people - just like colouring in drawings'. He adds that forcing graduates to spend a year on site against their will could encourage them to leave the industry altogether.

For some recently chartered engineers, however, the experience on site has been an enlightening experience.

'When you're actually there, you think much more about how things are built, which improves your design skills, ' says chartered civil engineer Cathy Bacon about her year on site on secondment from consultant Whitbybird. She adds that the experience helps designers to understand the process from a contractor's point of view.

She also advocates the benefits of spending a whole year on site, 'when you can really become part of the site team'.

Although both the ICE and IStructE emphasise that it is the quality of experience gained which is important, Bacon agrees that an element of doing some of the more repetitive tasks on site - such as checking reinforcement and setting out - can hammer home other issues.

'You do learn the pressures that a contractor is under - like when they need reinforcement information on Friday afternoon for Saturday morning, you can't just say no because it's the end of your week'.

The HSE is running a campaign encouraging designers to visit construction sites with HSE inspectors, so that safety failures can be pointed out insitu.

And acting chief inspector of construction Rosie Edwards believes that designers must get out of the office more.

'To understand the impact of a design, you need to understand how people work on site. The construction industry has a huge amount of knowledge at site level - to get that you need to be there, ' she says.

Contractors contacted by NCE agreed with this view.

One chief engineer who did not want to be named due to his association with the ICE said, 'Site experience is extremely important for all engineers. It's dropped down the pecking order in the [ICE] core objectives, but it's a core, core.'

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