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TALKING POINT

Chartered civil engineers are not as good they used to be, says John Atkinson.

The British Geotechnical Association recently held a meeting where the topic was 'Chartered civil engineers are not as good as they used to be'. I was one of four speakers who introduced the discussion.

This is a summary of my contribution, and not a summary of points made by other speakers. The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent those of my colleagues at City University.

There are some 60,000 chartered civil engineers who are members of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE). Of these there are undoubtedly engineers who are outstanding by any measure.

There are also those who are not actively engaged in the construction industry. That still leaves a substantial number who are the essence of the construction industry.

Typically they have a university degree (probably not from Oxbridge or Imperial College, London because most of their graduates go into banking rather than the construction industry), were chartered after several years of training and experience, and design and manage all but the highest prole projects.

Most regard themselves as fully qualied and few continue their professional development after they become chartered. These are the chartered civil engineers who are not as good as they used to be.

What is meant by '. . . not as good as '- A good engineer is innovative and competent. When was '. . . as they used to be-' Should we compare the engineers of today with the Victorian engineers or the engineers of the 1960s and 1970s, when I was educated, trained and became chartered?

Good engineers are innovative. They introduce new theories and methods into their practice; they do not rely on standards, codes and precedents. They are household names. Recent iconic structures - the Wobbly Bridge, the Gherkin, the Millau Bridge - are innovative, but the innovations are in their architecture.

When I asked my wife, who is an art historian and chemist, to name some civil engineers, she cited Brunel, Telford, Ove Arup and Richard Rogers! Civil engineers are no longer household names; architects are.

In ground engineering the standard techniques for investigation are the cable tool percussion rig and the U100 tube, both guaranteed to cause the maximum disturbance to samples, as well as the SPT test and UU compression test, which tell you very little about the strength and stiffness of the ground.

Although new equipment and techniques have been proven - the CPT, pressuremeter, effective stress laboratory testing and dynamic measurement of small strain stiffness - the half-century old methods are still the routine ones.

Hardly a record of innovation.

Good engineers are competent; they do not make mistakes. Chartered engineers today make a lot of mistakes. In ground engineering they try to dig holes in coarse grained soil below the water table, they confuse total and effective stress strength parameters, and they fail to understand warnings of imminent failure.

There is a saying, attributed to Professor Peter Vaughan, that the problem with British ground engineering is that all the good engineers are in court arguing over the mistakes made by the others; this is probably true of the whole profession.

Today's chartered engineers are less innovative than the Victorian engineers and they also make more mistakes than the chartered engineers of half a century ago. This raises the question 'Why are chartered civil engineers not as good as they used to be-'

The answer lies in their competence; their education, training and experience.

There are signicant differences between 'then' (in the 1960s and 1970s) and now.

Then, most chartered engineers had A-levels in maths and two other sciencebased subjects. Now there are many routes which avoid the need to take these 'difficult' subjects. Even A-level maths is not as taxing as it was then, whatever the government may say.

Then, a university degree in civil engineering required three solid years of hard graft, studying mostly theory and including a first year of general engineering. I do not remember seeing a code of practice or standard until I started work.

Now, it requires three or four years of study (with many students doing up to 20 hours per week paid work to make ends meet); their courses include remedial maths and large chunks of management, design and use of codes of practice. Now there is much less emphasis on core principles and much more on training which should be the responsibility of industry.

Then, graduates joined a company as an 'assistant under agreement'. The company agreed to provide the training and experience required by the ICE for the professional interview. I was trained by competent engineers who had themselves been properly educated and trained.

Now, training is muddled.

What happened to Chilver; who understands what constitutes a matching section- Much training has been transferred to the universities who are not well equipped to do it.

In industry the onus for training is on the graduate rather than on the company.

Now graduates are being trained by engineers who themselves were trained under this system, so simple mistakes and lack of innovation are perpetuated. Why do so few chartered engineers do any continuing professional development?

Today chartered engineers are less innovative and they make more mistakes.

Why has this come about- Government has interfered with schools so the base of hard science required for civil engineering is no longer there. The profession, through the ICE, has meddled with training. The universities, controlled by the Joint Board of Moderators, have been caught in the middle.

My brief was to consider if chartered civil engineers are as good as they used to be. I have reluctantly concluded they are not. Readers will have their own opinions and solutions. The question is important and it needs addressing.

John Atkinson is professor of soil mechanics at City University, London.

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