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Tales of mystery and imagination

COVER STORY: PROFESSIONAL VIEW The ICE's professional review process has long been shrouded in mystery and intrigue, and there are plenty of horror stories on hand to instil fear in potential candidates. Fact or fiction? Mark Hansford investigates.

Every year autumn means only one thing for hundreds of young civil engineers - time to start planning for the Professional Review. This arduous road is littered with the stories of tortured souls who failed to meet the mark, so the process is often depicted as nothing short of Armageddon. But is this really the case?

Results from the spring 2001 Professional Reviews confirmed a rising trend in the pass rate, with almost 80% of the 272 candidates successful. The overall pass rate has in fact being climbing steadily for five years, from 62% in 1996 to 79% today.

In that time over 2,400 candidates have successfully made the transition from graduate to chartered engineer.

So what is all the fuss about?

After all, the twice yearly professional review is the final challenge on the engineer's route to becoming qualified.

It is quite a day. Having first provided the necessary reports and other written documentation detailing their training and experience (see box), candidates finally come face to face with their reviewers - along with dozens of other candidates in crowded conference rooms around the country - for a 75 minute grilling.

Candidates have a three or four hour break to recover from this ordeal before being herded back in for the make or break two hour exam-style written assignment.

For many the whole experience can be very daunting.

'While my driving test remains the most terrifying experience of my life to date, I have to say that the Chartered Professional Review comes a very close second, ' says Stephen Larkin of the Graduates & Students National Committee (GSNC). 'It has to be one of the most difficult things I have ever done, principally because you don't really know what your reviewers are going to ask you about.'

He adds: 'In an exam you have a fair idea what the questions are going to be about as you have a syllabus to work within so you can retain a measure of control.

With the Review you don't.'

Others are simply unprepared for the manner and environment in which the questions are asked.

'The first thing that caught me out was the lack of space, ' says Rob Goodman of the crowded rooms for the interviewing and written process. He successfully passed at the third attempt this year. 'It was completely open plan and you could see so many people.'

Part of the process of putting candidates at ease is matching reviewers to candidates with a similar background. This should also ensure a consistent approach to the examination.

But it remains a major concern for potential candidates.

While the ICE maintains that this concern is unfounded, the views of recent candidates suggest that some problems still exist.

One recent candidate, who wishes to remain anonymous, relates a familiar tale: 'The reviewers were two highway engineers, but my experience was complex water retaining structures. One reviewer appeared disinterested throughout, which was very off putting.'

Barry O'Driscoll, another who passed recently at the third time of asking, says that if there is a poor match between reviewer and reviewee the interview can become polarised, and leave the candidate unable to cover the subjects they had hoped for.

'In my second attempt the reviewers were not closely matched and I was on the back foot all the time, with the reviewers jumping through the report and firing questions, ' he explains. 'I could tell as soon as I walked in that my report had not been liked. But the third time the reviewers knew my subject inside out, and it was very relaxed.'

Goodman also experienced three very different professional reviews: 'The first time was very much as expected, with the reviewers willing to listen, ' he explains. 'But the second time one reviewer did not like the technical aspect of the project, did not like the approach that was taken, and was very antagonistic.' The third time, he said, the reviewers were completely open minded.

Similar concerns surround the choice of questions for the written assignment: 'In my first review I scored very highly with my essays, ' says O'Driscoll. 'But in my second the essays were not based on my experience and I ended up failing one.'

GSNC's Jim Bell had an even worse experience: 'They got my questions completely wrong, and gave me two questions on pumping stations, ' he says. 'But I've never designed a pumping station in my life.'

All these approaches are fully justified, according to Gareth Jones, regional liaison officer (RLO) and reviewer. 'The Review process mirrors real life, ' he explains. 'Engineers write formal reports all the time.

They often make short presentations across a table in a meeting with strangers, with the client for example. And in those meetings they get asked questions, even some aggressive ones.'

The written assignment should be no different to being asked by your boss to draft a short report in answer to a specific question against the clock, he adds.

ICE audit panel chairman Miles Delap insists that the review process is fundamentally sound. 'It is flexible and tests skills that are useful to real engineers. People that fail don't deserve to be Members. We don't let in 100% and that is a good thing.

'But it is taking too long. I got in when I was 26, and I did nothing unusual, ' says Delap. 'It isn't that hard. Nothing stops you but ignorance of the process.'

There are few arguments from the GSNC. 'It is not a two-bit qualification, it is wanted, and it doesn't need to be drastically changed, ' says GSNC's chairman Jim Bell.

However, bureaucracy and ambiguity in the process is causing delays, he adds: 'People are unsure of what's involved. One RLO will tell you one thing and another something else. And the reviewers are different again.'

Bell is keen to see a single message developed to remove unwanted ambiguity.

But Delap defends the performance of the reviewers, citing the many changes to the qualification process in recent years:

'To be fair to the reviewers, things have changed a lot. They have had a lot of training - new reviewers undergo a thorough two day induction process and all reviewers attend an annual conference in January - but there are one or two who aren't as they should be.

'The biggest problem is company supervising civil engineers (SCE's), and getting them up to date guidance, ' he explains.

This problem is exacerbated by what Bell cites as a 'farcical situation'. Information contained in the ICE's latest routes to membership publication, 'Developing today's professionals for tomorrow's challenges' (the Blue Book), contradicts much of the information in the 2000 series documents (the Green Book) which are still used for candidates preparing for the professional review (see box).

'It is farcical that the ICE is giving out the Blue Book even though reviewers are working from the Green Book, ' he says.

'This means people are holding off applying for the Review. We need real training for RLOs and reviewers to ensure that they say the same thing.'

Former Scotland RLO Robert Hollingdale stressed the urgency of a revised 2000 series at the GSNC annual conference last March (NCE 29 March), but there is still no date set.

Fortunately the Review itself scores more highly: 'Once you get to the Review you are marked against eight categories, so you have no doubt about what you have to achieve, ' says Bell.

But Mike Gregson, regional liaison officer for East Anglia, the Home Counties and north east London, explains that the aim is to assess individual competencies to make an overall assessment rather than testing engineers on their complete knowledge. 'We don't expect candidates to be 100% in everything. If they are acceptable in some areas and strong in others - they will pass. We are looking for candidates to demonstrate that they have the attributes to make a competent professional engineer.

A significant proportion of rejected candidates, he says, simply fail to demonstrate that which is required - sometimes because they aimed at the wrong target or had tried to prove that they were good at their job, rather than good professional engineers.

'It can be that they fired the wrong arrows at the target, by answering 'what I did' rather than 'what it did to me', ' he explains. 'Or they did not have the appropriate arrows in the first place, that is that 'I've done the core objectives to be a professional therefore I must have become one'.'

However, Gregson reassures that 'we are looking at the product not the process. The days of mucky wellies and designing reinforced concrete are gone, ' he stresses. 'We are looking for engineering solutions'.

But this is subjective and returns to the problem of consistency, an issue accepted by Delap: 'For too long the process has not been sufficiently transparent.

'There is a perception that you will only get in if you are white middle class with a pale blue suit and have done your time on site and in the design office. But that is actually a long way from the truth, ' he says. 'The checklist is flexible and allows for judgement calls.'

Delap says that judgement calls need auditability, and a manual is being drawn up for reviewers to record the reasons behind judgments.

The ICE's Larkin accepts that there is still too much mystery surrounding the Review. But he adds: 'In reality, it is quite a simple process. You have to have sufficiently responsible experience and feel confident enough to try it, but the sooner you go for it the better.

'All you can do is try your best. If that isn't good enough identify your weaknesses and try again, ' he says.

What makes a professional engineer?

According to the ICE, chartered engineers are 'expected to be creative, innovative, to set standards, to manage independent teams and to have the potential to manage disciplines outside their own specialist area.

Above all they should be able to exercise professional judgement.

The precise requirements, and the basis of reviewers' assessments, is set out in Sections 1.3 and 14.2.01 of ICE 2001 respectively.

However, CEng is not the only mark of a professional engineer, with newly qualifying incorporated engineers also now welcomed as full members of the Institution.

The ICE defines IEng as engineers 'skilled at delivering high quality services in accordance with industry codes of practice and standards, able to manage teams within their own field and within a management team and able to exercise independent technical judgement within their specialist field.' The Incorporated Professional Review follows broadly similar lines to the Chartered professional review.

And as professionals, all grades are required to act ethically and show commitment to continuing professional development.

What is required at professional review?

Candidates must provide a variety of information to persuade reviewers of their competence:

The documents.

Questionnaires from at least four sponsors, a 2,000 word Experience Report, a 4,000 word Project Report, a record of achievement of the core and company specific objectives, a training record, a Development Action Plan and a Personal Development Record.

The interview.

A 15 minute presentation based on the project report followed by up to an hour of questioning.

The written assignment.

One written assignment in two hours under exam conditions.

A new approach

Bringing common sense clarity to the qualification process is the ICE's goal, according to new professional development manager Niall O'Hea.

While the original Green Books ICE 2001/2002/2003 remain the complete official precise rules of professional qualification that the reviewers are working to, 'we are now considering a clearer, more readable rewrite of the Green Books combining CEng and IEng into the one MICE, ' O'Hea explains.

'Meanwhile the Blue Book approved by Council and issued in April 2000 outlines the same high standard processes in simpler terms sufficient for 80% of aspiring members to understand what they have to do.'

O'Hea, himself a chartered member, continues:

'We are applying common sense clarity to our qualification processes, while still requiring the same high standards. We are broadening the interpretation of civil engineering to respond better to the demands of multidisciplinary industry and therefore widening our qualification requirements for membership. But we are not making changes that would have the effect of failing anyone if they didn't know about them, ' he says.

A major part of the new approach is to encourage uptake of the incorporated engineer grade, now that newly qualified IEng's are welcomed as full corporate members of the ICE.

'From here on, this qualification will be one of high esteem, equal to CEng in its importance to industry, but with people simply differently trained and displaying different professional characteristics, ' explains O'Hea. 'Within the one class of MICE, following first professional qualification at IEng MICE, some engineers may wish to demonstrate through CPR that through further workplace learning and training they have acquired additional professional skills sufficient to transfer to CEng MICE.'

The top five criticisms

Regional liaison officer for East Anglia, the Home Counties and North East London Mike Gregson answers the candidates biggest concerns:

'My reviewers were not matched to my experiences.'

Candidates answer two vital questions on the back of the application form: the type of organisation they work for, and the type of work they have done. These answers are scanned in to a computer, and the computer searches the 400-500 working reviewers to find a match and cross-match. The matching reviewer can talk to the candidate in depth, while the cross-matched reviewer can look at breadth of experience.

'My written assignment questions bear no relation to my experience.'

Guidance Note 5, issued in January 2001, states: 'The written assignment for incorporated member Professional Review candidates will be set specifically in the context of the candidate's experience. For the chartered Professional Review candidates, the written assignment will also include a wider societal, leadership and managerial viewpoint.'

It is therefore very important to remember when writing experience reports that reviewers are going to use them for assignment questions. Be careful and avoid throwaway comments.

'How do I know reviewers are consistent?'

Becoming a reviewer is a painstaking three stage process. To pass stage one, prospective reviewers must: be professionally qualified to at least the level they are assessing; be identified by Regional Liaison Officers (RLO) and other reviewers and recommended; and attend a new reviewers' induction day.

At this stage the reviewers are advised on questioning style, which covers issues such as reviewers not expressing opinions and not demonstrating their frustrations. The trainee is assessed at this stage.

At stage two the trainee will sit in on two interviews as an observer before a 1-2 hour debrief with an RLO and the standby reviewer.

Finally, the new reviewer takes part in three different sessions as number two to a senior reviewer. Each senior reviewer will write reports on the performance of his number two. Only then, if all reports are favourable, is the position confirmed.

Once practising, all reviewers attend an annual conference in January where major issues are discussed. For major changes training days are organised for all.

When reviewers are retired from work and do not continue in consultancy they are monitored and after two years usually asked to retire from reviewing. This is done to ensure all reviewers have up to date knowledge of the industry.

An appeals process has been introduced which allows candidates to have their submission re-assessed if they feel they have been unfairly treated or were disadvantaged is some way on the review day.

'There seems to be lots of conflicting literature about what I need to do to satisfy the requirements of the professional review.'

The 2000 series are the documents to use, ICE 2001 for Chartered Professional Review, ICE 2002 for Incorporated Professional Reviewand ICE 2003 for the technician review. The 2000 series still refers to essays and not written assignments, so anyone planning for the review is advised to talk to their RLO. Guidance Note 5 clarifies the situation.

'How do I know that my company and my supervising civil engineer are up to date with the latest requirements?'

The ICE through Thomas Telford runs training courses for literally thousands of supervising civil engineers, and the major role of RLOs is to keep the SCE's informed of changes. With all these concerns it is a fear of the unknown, a perception not a reality.

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