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Role models sought to rival the vets

COMMENT

There was a time when vets were seen as seedy rural eccentrics who spent much of their working lives with their arms up cows' backsides and the rest of it castrating tomcats. Definitely not a career for the bright, the ambitious or the status conscious.

Then along came James Herriot with his heart-warming tales, and suddenly vets were sexy. Applications to veterinary colleges soared, minimum academic standards for entry soon outstripped those for medical college, a wave of TV series and rip-off vet books followed.

Role models, you see. Apparently the young are heavily influenced by the images of professions as presented by the media. Doctors, on the whole, are shown positively, journalists are usually depicted as untrustworthy, conniving scandalmongers. Architects are cool, visionary, glamorous, and live in serious, stylish lofts.

How different for the civil (and structural) engineer. We only seem to appear in the wider media when something goes wrong. Major civil engineering achievements, such as the Second Severn Crossing and the Docklands Light Railway extension, receive little attention because they open on time and to budget. Instead, it is the Jubilee Line Extension or the wobbly bridge that are quoted as typical products of the British construction industry. And it is civil engineers trying to explain what went wrong that seem to be the only role models offered.

It is not just the effect of such negative images on potential recruits to the profession that has to be considered. Almost half those who graduate as civil engineers eventually desert the industry, most blaming low pay and status. A lack of inspirational role models, the modern day equivalents of Brunel and Telford, is inextricably linked to low status - and pay. And without realistic hope of fame and fortune and profiles in the broadsheets what motive is there to stick with what will always be a very demanding profession?

So Cambridge University Engineering Society is to be commended for organising a symposium for undergraduates and recent graduates in conjunction with the prestigious International Association for Bridge & Structural Engineering at which a succession of potential role models took the stage.

Recent history made it inevitable that the star was World Trade Center engineer Leslie Robertson, whose moving presentation was unforgettable (see p14). But there were many other academics, consultants and specialist engineers with inspirational stories to tell.

None of them were exactly household names, but there was one among them known to most of the non-specialist media at least - as the 'Man in Red'.

Mike Davies of the Richard Rogers Partnership is an accomplished architect who has worked on innumerable high profile projects but is perhaps most closely identified with the Millennium Dome. His fame outside the profession, however, rests mainly on his well-developed beard and an obsession with wearing all red clothing.

I'm not suggesting that engineers adopt such an eccentric posture - but until we learn to play the media game much better than we do now our status will remain where it currently is - well below vets, well above journalists.

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