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One of the family

Working lives - Local government needs more top quality engineers.Devon County Council's Paul Oliver explains why he moved from private to public sector.

Devon County Council bridges and structures engineer Paul Oliver, 32, arrived at his job in local government nearly five years ago via experience in consultancy with Coode Blizzard, Graham, WSP and BarKonsult.

He fancied a change, he says, 'and working for local government is a change: it is a totally different ethos to consultancy. As a bridges and structures engineer I have a feeling of responsibility, a connection with Devon's structures.

'When you assess a bridge you keep on doing it until you get to the stage when you've done everything you can. It's your bridge. In consultancy, you do the work until the money for the contract runs out.' You are also very aware that the structures you are dealing with are part of the community you work for, Oliver says.

'You can't see them in isolation.

A bridge or viaduct may be the only way in or out of a village.

You need to think hard about how to carry out any strengthening works.' And then, he says, you have to convince councillors, parish councillors and local people that you have their best interests at heart. 'It can take a week to design the strengthening work and three months to negotiate with the community.' The ability to be able to explain technically complex issues to non technical people without sounding patronising is vital, he explains.

'It's a fabulous job and we need good people, ' Oliver says.

'The skills shortage is an acute issue in local government. There are a lot of people coming up for retirement because 30 or 40 years ago local government was the place to be. Arguably it's the place to be again.' Central government's drive to regionalise spending and give more responsibility to local councils to make strategic decisions means local authorities will need engineers to make sure they are technically literate clients. And they need engineers who can make sure councillors and other council managers listen to them. Council procurement problems around the country are driving that message home (see cover story, page 19).

'There's a fantastic family feeling about working in local government, ' Oliver says.

'You work with a range of people and a range of ages, and there's a huge pool of experience and local knowledge to call on.

When I'm assessing a bridge, there's usually someone around who knows someone who built it.

'The pay and conditions are reasonably good and it's local work. You have responsibility for an area; you live in the area so you get a great rapport with the locals and local politicians.

It's lovely to be part of it.

'And local people have more confidence in you than someone in the private sector because they believe they pay for you personally out of their council tax.' Jackie Whitelaw

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