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Taking the Long view

ICE news

Clarity of thought and a pause for breath followed by structured action characterises Professor Adrian Long's style. Antony Oliver heard which thoughts the new ICE President plans to turn into deeds.

Within the hurly-burly of modern life, there is something strangely reassuring about academics - a feeling that if nothing else, things have all been well thought through. Professor Adrian Long is just that sort of academic.

'I tend to think about things and balance things out - that is my nature and I am not sure that I can change, ' he says reflecting on what his style will bring to the 138th ICE presidency.

'But one thing that I mustn't do is think for too long, ' he says with a smile. 'There are many ways of doing things - the important thing is that you produce a successful outcome. There is a need for urgency to move things on - we mustn't miss that opportunity.'

And it is here that Long starts to set himself apart from the academic convention. The twelfth professor to hold the ICE presidency, he rejects ivory towers.

Instead he demands clarity of thought and a passion for practical strategies that actually deliver results on the ground.

'I always consider myself much more as a practitioner, tackling real problems that are applicable to the real industry, ' he insists, highlighting that academia has had to move on.

'There are lots of people working in industry who behave more like academics than academics.'

And while there are problems to tackle around universities, he does not intend to focus his presidential year on that. 'I would rather go out and visit industry - that is what originally attracted me to the profession.'

Priorities for his presidential year build on his work carried out as a vice president over the past half decade. His presidential address sets out his desire to help tackle the growing skills shortages in the profession through better communication, promotion and celebration, and he wants to boost industry efficiency through better, more targeted research.

Long's roots in Northern Ireland are very important to him and help to structure his thinking on many issues. Without doubt he remains a very big fish there. Yet he is visibly flattered by the number of friends and colleagues who plan to make the trip to London for his Presidential Address.

Long's roots are founded in Queen's University, Belfast where he has spent a large part of his working life, starting, he says, at a time when there were a lot of attractions to academic life.

'It is not nearly as attractive a career as it was 30 years ago, ' he says, referring to the ever-increasing pressures on research funding and teaching resources.

Now dean of the engineering faculty, he has Queen's ingrained in his being. It was at Queen's that he studied for his first degree and attained his PhD. It was at Queen's that he met his wife Elaine. It was there that he started and, after a spell working in Canada, continued his career in research and teaching.

Throughout this time he has also been a tireless servant of the ICE. Years spent working within the local association - recently renamed ICE Northern Ireland - have left him in no doubt about the value of the association structure and of the enormous amount of work done by them, particularly in areas that are quite remote from Great George Street.

His ICE career started as graduate liaison officer for the NI local association, trying both to drum up interest in the ICE within the student population but also to fight their corner.

This passion for getting young engineers involved in the profession has not faded, particularly as the industry faces escalating skills shortages - an issue which will form one of the bedrocks of his presidential year. As president he intends to help turn the tide.

'A lot of companies have been forced into a position where they can't offer a salary that is commensurate with the qualities of the people that work for them, ' he accepts. 'The result is that many young people move to areas that do pay greater salaries.'

Yet he maintains that civil engineering is such an interesting and absorbing industry - 'We should be selling this. At the moment the salaries may not be the most attractive but there is a lot more security right now.'

Long sees changes in the industry procurement process as vital to tackling the skills problem as this will generate the higher fees needed to attract, train and retain the best staff.

'If you get good design the benefits far outweigh the costs, ' he says. 'If we can get this message across we can start saying to government 'let's develop sound procurement practices to minimise the total cost to the nation'.'

While he does not advocate a return to fee scales, Long is adamant that clients - particularly government - must be convinced about the benefits of employing and paying for the best.

'There is no doubt that with better funding we will attract the brightest and the best into the profession, ' he says, arguing that there is no reason why other professions can command fees two or three times higher than civil engineers. 'We then have to work on keeping them in.'

He puts his own career in engineering down to inspiration from watching his father at work making and mending farm machinery. In particular, he refers to the image of him sweating a steel band onto a cart wheel.

'I only recently appreciated that it was probably one of the last times this was done in Ireland, ' he says mourning the decline in such practical skills. 'I do honestly think that there is a great problem since the move away from manufacturing and away from the farming industry.

People there had tremendous practical skills and many of these people would have been the lifeblood of the construction industry.'

His own family has not followed in his footsteps. His son Michael is a dentist - 'a different sort of excavation' - although he is married to a civil engineer.

Both are councillors in Belfast's hotbed of politics. His daughter Alison has also chosen not to follow her father's career.

Long expects to spend a great deal of time away from Belfast next year - away from his home near Stormont Castle, his wife, and from his regular walks with his West Highland terrier Bonnie around Belfast Loch.

This will also mean spending time away from the activities of his local church which have been a central part of his life.

'I think that there are a lot of parallels between churches and the Institution, ' he explains.

'Both depend very highly on the quality of service that you give.

People have a choice - they don't have to attend your service.'

Ensuring that the ICE delivers the service members want is crucial, he believes, particularly for the young. Without this they simply will not join, he says.

'I am concerned that a lot of young people go through a degree course without becoming a member of the ICE, ' Long explains. 'This is to some extent because not as many academic staff now are members. I think we need to be more welcoming to people who are academics or to people with PhDs.'

Long is keen to remove the hurdles so that they can more easily enter the ICE. 'We must be more flexible: we must encourage people who are academic, PhD, or specialist and who may have started off not as civil engineers.'

In particular he has his eye on the large number of young people who come in to the industry through contracting but do not become members of the ICE.

'ICE membership is very relevant to their careers but they are just too busy, ' he says. 'The procedures we have at the moment are such that it takes too much time and effort. These people are just so busy working from early in the morning until late at night that at a critical point in their career it is a matter of priorities.'

Long vows to remove bureaucracy. Reducing the amount of work needed to get candidates to a professional review is vital, he says, if the ICE is to attract the brightest - and thus the busiest - young people. This will also mean ensuring that a huge diversity of students and professionals are encouraged into the ICE.

But he is also adamant that basic standards must not drop, particularly the need for a basic grasp of mathematics in the profession - a subject that he confesses to having a love for.

'I think maths is less important to a career in civil engineering than it was 30 years ago but it depends on how much less. I think there has been an enormous drop in the capabilities and numeracy of young people.

I think that as a nation we need to address the fact that young people are not getting the understanding of basic arithmetic.'

He highlights that universities have had to resort to remedial lessons since many students now arrive at civils courses without a basic understanding of calculus. That said, he is clear that not every professional has to be a maths whizz kid.

'I see the ideal civil engineer as being someone who is a very balanced person but who has sufficient understanding of maths to not run shy of it, ' he explains, adding that the profession requires compromise and a mix of technical and management expertise to function effectively.

Where he offers no compromise however, is in his belief that greater investment needs to be made in construction research and development.

'Industries in this country that get the most respect are those that invest the most in research, ' he says. 'Within the whole construction sector there is not as much emphasis on research as there should be.'

As with investment in design skills, he believes that clients must be convinced that it is worth investing in research for long term gains. 'It is for us to sell the idea to clients and to government that if they don't do research they are going to end up paying more for a less effective solution.'

Long draws on his own experience in the development of wave power technology in the 1970s to highlight the continued pitfalls facing research in the UK.

'We have to avoid stop-start investment in technology, ' he says. 'Switching things on and switching things off is very energy inefficient. If we had continued to invest in alternative energies at the level that we were doing (in the 1970s) then we would now be starting to see benefits.'

Long believes the ICE must make sure that decision makers are made aware of this need for sustained research investment.

Yet he believes that for the ICE to make its views on this and many other critical subjects heard it must 'release itself from its constraints' and adapt its message so that more people can understand. He sites the NCE/ICE State of the Nation report card as an example of how we should be presenting our message.

'The quality of the documents coming out of the Institution is very impressive, ' he says. 'What we need to do then is knock this down into something that is more user friendly. Dissemination is so important.'

Taking the ICE's message to the nation's decision makers is, Long believes, vital. 'It does worry me that an awful lot of people don't listen. We are planning to meet with some people from parliament to find out how to get the message across more effectively. If they don't listen you have to find out why.'

Yet above all he is keen to ensure that every member of the ICE feels part of the profession and feels that he, as president, is helping every one of them. 'I want members to feel more welcome and if we can help them with skills shortages, help them as a learned institution, we will be doing well.'

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