It was all about praising and rewarding graduates last week as the finalists in NCE’s annual Graduate Awards shared a record £4,000 prize pot at the presentation lunch. David Hayward profiles the winners
Despite construction’s continuing challenges, graduate recruitment is starting to rise again, with some major companies increasing their annual intake by over 50% compared to last year.
This was the encouraging message to new civils graduates among the 200 invited guests at last week’s NCE Graduate Awards lunch at the ICE.
Top of the bunch were six young finalists who had won through from a record 115 worldwide entries to each face gruelling interviews from a panel of 17 senior directors from the awards’ sponsoring companies. But it had been worth it, for all six were regarded as winners and were rewarded with a share of the record £4,000 prize pot.
Overall winner, 24-year-old Jamie Radford, from Cambridge University and now with Mott MacDonald, was handed a £1,500 cheque and a specially crafted trophy by chairman of judges NCE editor Antony Oliver.
The runner-up received £700, and four highly commended finalists each took home £350.
Next year’s awards will be open to civil engineers who graduated this year, 2012, and the competition will be launched late June 2013.
Winner: Jamie Radford
“Civil engineers have a responsibility to change and improve people’s lives”
The sheer strength of sludge piled high in African slum toilet pits, coupled with the search for new butterfly species: these are the two top passions of this year’s NCE Graduate of the Year, 24-year-old Mott MacDonald water engineer Jamie Radford. Devotion to his day job laps a close third and, strangely, was the catalyst behind these two somewhat bizarre fascinations.
Three major challenges in developing countries - urban poverty, understanding climate change and sustainable social housing - form the background to his personal mission statement.
“By 2050 most of the world’s extra 2bn inhabitants will be living in our developing countries,” he asserts. “Civil engineers have a responsibility to change and improve people’s lives so we must take the lead to see it happens. I want to be help make that difference.”
The trigger for this ambition can be traced to his father, who has a leading United Nations role advising developing countries on urban housing policies. With a young Radford living in Tanzania, Kenya, the Maldives and Japan, he saw at first hand the challenge and the skills needed to make that difference.
“I knew from an early age that I wanted to be an engineer,” he says. Four years at Cambridge University gaining a 1st class MEng offered the ideal platform to both develop such skills and pursue his aim.
As president of the university’s engineering society he chaired a 14-strong committee, allocated a £30,000 budget and voiced the opinions of 1,000 undergraduates to university management boards. He is also credited with organising the largest volunteer-run careers fair of any UK university.
But it was as co-president of the Cambridge branch of the studentrun charity Engineers Without Borders that Radford gained his exposure to developing countries.
A two month trip to El Salvador was supposed to offer him design experience in rural housing and sanitation. In the event it resulted in a totally different design project.
“Due to a local mix up I ended up designing a sustainable woodburning stove, which could be built by the locals inhabitants,” he recalls. His design proved a hit and is now being used extensively.
“Confident, inspirational and well balanced without any arrogance. He ticks all the right boxes”
The seed had been sown and, back at Cambridge, he founded a research initiative into sustainable social housing. This now thriving project, involving 150 undergraduates and centering on a dozen full time research academics, has been fuelled by Radford’s £190,000 grant raising efforts, and he is currently seeking charity status for the whole scheme.
The following summer he embarked on a further two-month expedition, this time to Ecuador’s rainforest, where he notched up another accolade by discovering six previously unknown butterfly species. He can now claim to be surely the only graduate civil engineer to have a newly identified butterfly named after him.
It was towards the end of his Cambridge course that his second rare passion emerged. Three of the dozen major academic prizes and scholarships he won at university - including an ICE best project award - resulted from his final year thesis entitled The characteristics of pit latrine sludge.
“We know nothing about the physical strength of faecal sludge and how it behaves while being pumped from village latrine pits,” says Radford. “Thousands of inefficient pumps result in filled-up toilets simply being abandoned, leading to serious health hazards and shortages of valuable land for house building,” he says.
Two lengthy trips to Uganda, personal examination of 38 overflowing latrines, plus presentation of his findings at, so far, two international conferences, could well change all that. With Mott MacDonald’s proactive support, Radford is now unashamedly a leading world authority on the behaviour of faecal sludge. He hopes such knowledge will lead to sustainable latrine-emptying techniques with efficient pumps built locally.
- Graduate civil engineer, Mott MacDonald
- 1st class MEng Cambridge University
Runner-up: Stephen Thompson
“Brimming with enthusiasm and energy. He expresses wide and intelligent views”
Stephen Thompson’s first summer job after leaving school was not civil engineering related but working for bank Lehman Brothers. His role, collecting mortgage payments and devising plans to help customers reduce their debt, gave him an insight into both the advantages and dangers of placing money top of the wish list.
Six years on, this graduate structural engineer with Arup is in no doubt about his personal wish list. “Money is not that important and is not driving my career,” he says. “The rewards of civil engineering are not primarily financial but more the sense of achievement at delivering something beneficial to society as a whole.”
“The improvements we can bring to the wider community cannot be quantified financially,” he claims. “Now, more than ever, is the time for engineers to step forward and make our voices heard in the desire to create a sustainable future.”
His immediate aim at Arup is not to jump up the financial ladder but to get a good technical engineering grounding. Pointing out that his generation will likely be working until they are at least 70, Thompson is determined to enjoy going to work every day.
And at Arup he does, as the consultant has already offered him early responsibility. He is currently team leader responsible for checking all drawings for both the design and construction of a 60,000-seat Saudi Arabian football stadium.
This year’s finalists all have an impressively high number of academic university awards. But centre of Thompson’s mantlepiece is one prize that his fellow contenders must envy.
While securing a 1st class MEng at Bristol, he won the top Europe-wide science, engineering and technology award for civil engineering excellence - a prize competed for by final year civils students from every European university.
Alongside this trophy stand certificates for securing two university research scholarships totalling £4,000 to analyse the construction properties of timber. And, lest anyone accuse him of being an anorak, he can equally boast a hat stand of hockey caps won playing for his university.
- Graduate structural engineer, Arup
- Ist class MEng Bristol University
Highly commended: Neil Cuthbert
“Academically excellent; a sound and competent engineer”
Careers advice at Neil Cuthbert’s school was an all too familiar zero. No one had any knowledge of engineering and his accountant father urged him not to become an accountant. So Cuthbert nearly ended up as a computer games designer.
A brief foray into structures, courtesy of Atkins, offering 15-year-olds the chance to investigate loadings on an old building, pulled schoolboy Cuthbert back in line and winning 10 major civils prizes at Dundee University confirmed he had made the right choice.
But the early indecision encouraged him to become a keen ambassador for the profession and he remains heavily involved in both the ICE and RedR schools programmes, regularly giving motivational talks to 200 11-year-olds.
Sports offered him light relief from prize winning, and he captained his university at both squash and badminton before promotion to the All British Universities’ national badminton team.
Now with Atkins oil and gas division in Aberdeen, Cuthbert plays a leading role in the company’s training academy, lecturing to fellow graduates and coordinating the dissemination of educational material to the consultant’s offices worldwide. He feels strongly that the continuing recession must not hinder training opportunities.
“Our industry is like an hour glass,” he claims. “Graduates at the bottom, experts at the top and a narrow, damaging bottleneck in the middle.
“We need to train up graduates more quickly to fill that gap.”
Atkins, he says, offered him early responsibility and promotion. He has already headed up a structural analysis team helping to provide the conceptual design for a new Danish oil and gas field.
In his spare time he climbs mountains and has helped raise over £10,000 for charity by tackling the Munro challenge and sprinting up 13, 1,000m plus mountains in 24 hours.
- Graduate structural engineer, Atkins
- 1st class MEng Dundee University
Highly commended: Eva Linnell
“People focused and a bright thinker”
Passionate about the social engineering opportunities of our profession, Eva Linnell claims key aspects of Britain’s overseas aid programme are “an industry in crisis”.
Based on her five years of experience as a senior placement officer with charity Engineers Without Borders (EWB), Linnell argues that the key to building programmes in developing countries is as much about demonstrating people skills as construction ability.
“There are as many failed building projects as successful ones,” she asserts.
“Some people think that they can help improve communities by simply building new facilities, but these are useless without volunteers also having good people skills vital to the buildings’ correct design and operation.
“Civil engineers are well placed to develop these skills and can be crucial to the success of such projects,” she adds.
It was her own six-month EWB placement to Ecuador, straight after leaving Bristol University, that reinforced her desire to specialise in water engineering.
Her task in Ecuador had been to analyse and supervise construction of improved water supplies to several remote rural villages - an operation that convinced her she had the ability to achieve a life changing difference.
First at university, and now with Atkins water division, the 25-year-old graduate’s work has been far from rural.
Most important has been her novel design of surface aerators to help resolve a chlorination problem in treated water and for which she has already presented a paper to an international water conference.
Her cutting-edge research involves such technically diverse elements as trihalomethane and real live zebra-striped mussels, which apparently can clog up vital pipework.
- Graduate civil engineer, Atkins
- 2:1 MEng Bristol University
Highly commended: Andrew Mather
“A good ambassador who will prove inspirational to the next generation of engineers”
Haiti, even 18 months after the catastrophic 2010 earthquake, remained a disaster zone offering little long term hope for the 1M homeless population.
This is 24-year-old Ramboll structural engineer Andrew Mather’s blunt summary of his feelings during a two month placement to the Caribbean island soon after graduating from Oxford University.
His volunteer role, with the charity Tearfund, was to oversee the total rebuilding of a dozen remote villages, including new housing, schools and sanitation, in an attempt to restore some semblance of normality for the 4,000 inhabitants.
“The vast majority of people were still living in basic emergency accommodation and, without the dedication of both western and local civil engineers, their lives would see little improvement,” he reflects.
“It taught me very quickly the ability and skills engineers possess to really make a long term difference.”
Mather had just left Oxford where his 1st class MEng, plus winning the highest Royal Academy of Engineering gold leadership award and personally setting up an engineering society at his college, attracting 60 members, had all taught him the theory of civil engineering but little of its practical opportunities. Haiti provided that.
Now with Ramboll, he heads up the consultant’s graduate task group. His role is to represent the views of all 80 company graduates to the executive board and spearhead activities ranging from schools liaison visits to group involvement in currently six overseas charities including an orphanage in Zambia and housing in Bangladesh.
At work he enjoys the company’s close interface with architects and is taking a leading role in the structural analysis of two up to 26 storey blocks of luxury riverside apartments overlooking the Houses of Parliament.
Here extensive open interior space is high on the client’s demand list.
“Structures are as much art as science,” he says.
- Graduate structural engineer, Ramboll
- 1st class MEng Oxford University
Highly commended: Tom Wallace
“Refreshingly different and hungry for experience”
Within minutes of the finalists being announced Tony Gee graduate Tom Wallace had researched just about all there was to know about his rivals and, on his personal blog, he had analysed the qualities of the last 10 graduate award winners.
Away from the laptop the 25-year-old’s real life is equally varied. A karate black belt, grade eight piano, and Duke of Edinburgh gold medal winner compete with avid schools ambassador and multi-prize winner at Surrey University.
Three of those awards offer an insight into his career philosophy. “I forced myself through City and Guilds qualifications in bricklaying, joinery and plumbing,” he recalls. “If I was going to supervise people building things, the least I could do was learn howto use a saw myself.”
Having headed up the design of a key £500,000 rail link into the London Olympics village site, Wallace is again concentrating on his on-line skills to set up another networking site. Linking in to the so-called ‘stack exchange’ websites will, he says, offer civil engineers a formalised worldwide question and answer site on anything remotely civils based.
- Graduate civil engineer, Tony Gee
- 1st class MEng Surrey University
Six of this year’s brightest young civil engineers were rewarded with prizes and praise in front of invited industry leaders at NCE’s annual Graduate Awards Presentation.