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Crossrail, Grenfell and Polcevera highlight failure to adopt 'right' skills

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Consultancy is at the sharp end of the skills debate given the high proportion of professionally-qualified civil engineers working for these firms. So what does the immediate and medium term future hold for these companies and the civil engineers that they employ?

Twenty years ago this month New Civil Engineer provoked a small storm by reporting how Railtrack – then Britain’s biggest client as the firm in charge of maintaining and upgrading the nation’s railways – felt civil engineers had the “wrong type of skills” for its major project programmes.

It was, said the then Railtrack major projects director Simon Murray, the reason that almost all the firms it had shortlisted for the role of programme manager on its major projects came from outside the civil engineering sector – mainly from process engineering and management consulting.

Systems engineering

“We need companies with a high degree of competence in systems engineering. Civil engineering companies are not so good for this,” he said.

He added: “The industry has tried to rebadge project management as programme management. But there is a difference. Programme management is about coordinating an array of many projects – a bit like building an airliner or a warship. It is only partly about being on time and budget.”

Fast forward two decades and Murray’s words resonate in the wake of the Crossrail debacle. The project is heading for a two, to three year delay and is set to come in many billions of pounds over budget. Public spending watchdog the National Audit Office recently revealed enormous cost overruns on 36 of Crossrail’s engineering and construction contracts.  

So, does Murray, now non-executive director of the East-West Rail project and until recently non-executive director of Highways England, stand by that view, 20 years on?

We need companies with a high degree of competence in systems engineering

Of course he does. Crossrail’s failure is exactly the sort of failure that Murray was talking about 20 years ago.

“What comes out of all the recent reports into Crossrail is a lack of attention [of the engineers involved] to the fundamental complexity of a programme like that and understanding the needs to simplify it,” he asserts.

“The people who worked so very hard on it – and they have worked very hard on it – were focused on their bits of it, rather than the totality of it.”

And, worryingly, this apparent inability of the industry to deploy the right skills to manage complex programmes is only going to get worse, believes Murray.

It is a major problem that the industry must confront, he says, if the prospects of other major programmes are not to be irretrievably damaged. “Crossrail is a tragedy for our industry. Of course other programmes are being affected. It would be totally naïve to believe that the issues are unique to Crossrail,” states Murray. “We have a fundamental problem with the way we are organised. We work in silos – professionally and commercially – and it has to change.”

Lessons from tragedy

The Crossrail debacle is, of course, a non-fatal tragedy. Other fundamental skills questions – questions about competence – emerged in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy.

And while professional opinion seems to be that the current system, in the UK at least, is good enough – for now – to avoid Grenfell-esque tragedies in infrastructure, recent catastrophic failures in Florida and Genoa suggest that there is little room for complacency anywhere.

The introduction of mid-career reviews was one potentially game-changing proposal that emerged in the wake of the ICE’s skills review and post-Grenfell In Plain Sight report published in 2018.

The Future of Skills on The Engineers Collective: the new New Civil Engineer Podcast

Listen to ICE vice president and skills review author Ed McCann’s views on skills, including his take on mid-career reviews and why he believes we need registers for engineers suitably qualified to perform certain, critical tasks like drawing sign off and systems integration, in the new New Civil Engineer Podcast The Engineers Collective, out Wednesday 29 May. Available on Apple, Spotify and via

There are pros and cons; the main con largely being that any form of additional regulation could simply drive those wishing to avoid assessment out of the system, where they will continue to operate, unregulated.

The things that civil engineers are traditionally trained to do have become more and more automated, and that is accelerating

The obvious solution to that is for clients to mandate that companies they work with use only qualified and regulated engineers – but the feedback from the round table suggests a reluctance to do this.

So, already there are two big skills concerns – programme management and technical competence. Murray, for one, actually believes civil engineers can meet those challenges.

But there is a gap that experts such  as Murray have doubts that engineers can fill. Digital is the biggest game-changer there is. Because just as projects and programmes are becoming increasingly about digital systems – take smart motorways as a perfect example – traditional engineers’ roles are becoming increasingly digitised.

Murray adds: “Infrastructure is only getting more integrated and more complex. It is becoming increasingly digital. Look at road transport, and preparing for connected, autonomous vehicles. We haven’t even scratched the surface.”

At the same time it is a fact, says Murray, that much of what was traditionally done by civil engineers at the start of his career has already been digitised – take production of bar-bending schedules, or reinforcement design for example.

Automated civils tasks

“The things that civil engineers are traditionally trained to do have become more and more automated, and that is accelerating,” says Murray. “The things that civil engineers learn to become professionally qualified civil engineers are less done.”

And if you want to be blunt about it: “You are not going to be paid a lot of money for doing what computers can do,” he states.

This is a particular challenge for civil engineering consultancies, which are by far the largest employers of professionally qualified civil engineers and at the sharp end of the digitisation of traditional engineering services – even when one accounts for moves towards offsite automated construction.

It is a challenge not lost on the Association for Consultancy & Engineering (ACE), whose chief executive Hannah Vickers is, this month, launching a major new piece of work the Future of Consultancy aimed at alerting its members to the scale of the change to come and arming them with the tools to combat it.

This summer the ACE will be consulting before launching an industry-wide programme on skills, focusing on the key gaps and opportunities to fill them in October, potentially with a training provider stepping in to build the content.

“The key question for many is ‘do we start to buy-in data scientists or do we take people with the right sector knowledge and turn them into data scientists?’,” she says.

Human nature doesn’t like change. And the pace of change is exponential

“Or do you partner with a company that can bring that expertise in?”

This is bold thinking though; and is unlikely to be universally supported.

“It will be down to the ambitions of individual companies,” accepts Vickers. “There are larger companies who are quite traditional and will want to stay that way; equally there will be SMEs focusing on data services.”

And there will be an ongoing role, most believe, for specialist design firms.

So while all this plays out, what should a mid-career civil engineer be doing to secure his or her future?

“We need everybody in the industry to get up to a basic understanding of what technology can enable,” says Vickers.

“These engineers have got real value to add by knowing their roles very well and understanding where they can add value and understanding where the new markets are.

“Questions to ask yourself are: How can I deploy my skills outside of my projects?’ Can I use them for strategic planning? What can I offer to the whole-life system of assets space?” she says.

Uncomfortable questions

Those may sound like bold questions that some engineers may be uncomfortable asking. But it has to be embraced as much as an exciting opportunity as it is seen as a fear, says Bisrat Degefa, digital transformation lead for Atkins’ global design centre in India.

Degefa is among the best placed of all to comment on the impact of digitisation on the average engineer, having recently relocated to India to lead the retraining and reskilling of the 2,000-plus engineers the consultant has based there, supporting and delivering projects for clients across the globe.

He urges engineers to see the transition as an opportunity to be freed from the mundane.

“When I graduated, the first thing I did for three months was filling out a drawing register. I found it frustrating as I wanted to be designing things. This is the stuff we’ve been able to digitise so far. It is the stuff nobody likes to do. And I really do see it as freeing people up to do what they wanted to do; and that’s be more creative,” he says.

But he acknowledges that digitisation now is going to increasingly invade the more creative tasks of actual design, and therein lies the fear.

“In the future, as we get smarter, automation will start doing that; and that’s the fear,” says Degefa.

Right now, his focus is on making the 2,000 engineers under his command fully digitally aware in a Building Information Modelling Level 2 way, a reminder that whi le in the UK such processes are now reasonably well embedded, in other regions around the world they are less so.

 Digitisation will start to challenge us and our current business models

But he is clear that that does not mean making them programmers.

“Here in India we have hundreds of programmers. That’s not the problem. It’s the ability of engineers to engage with the digital model and do design reviews working in the digital model and not doing them using a 2D print out.

“For us there is less focus on the programming and more  focus on engineers being able to use the tools so you can have trust in them.”

Degefa is working with Mathilde Roubille, a product manager at Atkins with three years experience of major infrastructure projects in the United Arab Emirates. She is now supporting digital changes in Atkins’ Middle East operation and says it is human nature to be cautious about the changes to come.

Fear and change

“There is a fear; human nature doesn’t like change. And the pace of change is exponential. Some of the technology coming, like using generative design to design elements that are stronger and lighter, gets the biggest fear reaction: ‘If I don’t do calculations any more, what do I do?’,” she says.

“But we don’t want the civil engineering industry to become a software industry. Coding can be taken care of by an Autodesk or a Bentley or an IBM.

“The role going forward will be really understanding the client brief and really interrogating it to define the problem appropriately so you can chose the best [computed] solution,” she says.

“It’s also wider than that; the relationship with the client will change. It will not just be about taking a brief and modifying it slightly, it will be more of a reimaging the solution based on the client’s desired outcome.”

Roles for creative people

That all sounds great, but surely there are only so many roles for these creative, client-facing people? What of the 2,000 in India in Atkins alone?

Roubille adds: “We may have more work to do; we will be giving the client so much more in terms of digital models. I don’t know if the balance will compensate, but there will be more to do.”

She adds that there will also be key roles to check that when innovative solutions are deployed, such as 3D printed components, that they are working as designed.

What is clear is that the rapid pace of digitisation  will start to challenge the industry and its current business models.

Vickers says: “Going forward, most people will have the same software solutions and access to the same data. So the skill is going to be in problem solving, but nobody out there has all the answers yet.

Challenge to business models

“But digitisation will start to challenge us and our current business models.”

Many consultancies are already on the road to adapting to digitisation, of course.

 Arguably the one closest to the answer is Mott MacDonald, which already envisages a world where clients access its digitally-led decision-s  upport services as something which is paid for with an annual subscription or where it is paid solely on savings made using its digital twin services (see box).

“If we want to support and encourage digital innovation in our industry, then this must go hand-in-hand with innovation in the commercial models which pay for it, with new thinking required on how we measure and monetise value connected to enhanced outcomes,” explains Mott MacDonald digital business development director Richard Shennan.

Shennan adds: “Most contracts are based on the working hours and material resources put into the delivery of a specified output, with risk allocation models applied in that context.”

New ways to quantify value

Digitisation, he says, enables us to quantify value in new ways. To collect and connect live data from multiple sources and to make sense of it in terms of asset performance. Connecting supply chain reward to the value that is created by assets in use has the potential to incentivise a much wider range of innovation, more directly connected to enhanced economic, social and environmental outcomes.

This thinking extends to technical reports, a staple consulting sector output. A report is commissioned by a client that has important decisions to make. The experts consider the question, carry out research, assemble data, apply their expertise and analytics capability, and produce a document – or body of documents – communicating key information and recommendations.

But the report is frozen in time, while the data on which it is based is always changing. A new “always-on” format beckons, with a new business model to go with it.

Just as smart infrastructure uses continuous data feeds to provide insight and inform decisions, technical reports in the digital age can harvest, make sense of and present up-to-the-minute information. Continuously.

“It transforms the usefulness of the report,” says Shennan.

Value based pricing

Other industries have long used value-based pricing to support innovation, taking into account new value propositions. Mobile phones are an example in which consumers pay for the perceived benefits they gain, rather than the intrinsic value of the device.

Meanwhile, in the software industry, licenses and subscriptions have become standard payment methods. For phones and software, these arrangements incentivise providers to make regular improvements to functionality to protect existing sales and achieve new ones – a spur that is absent when the sales strategy is based on revenue from one-off payments.

Shennan observes that civil engineering’s reluctance to embrace new commercial models puts traditional infrastructure sector players at risk of losing work to more nimble competitors from other sectors. Some organisations may be prepared to provide high-level consultancy for free, in exchange for access to datasets which they plan to monetise for more value than the cost of the job.

But even here there is a need for caution. Businesses such as Mott MacDonald can only move as fast as the clients allow and there is an element of lethargy in moving to new business models.

For all the talk about the ICE-led Project 13 outcome-based business model, few – if any – clients have properly embrace it at a meaningful level.

Tradidional client demands

“What clients are demanding from us right now is still very traditional. We are still taking consultancy-style expertise and selling it [by the hour],” says Vickers. “We have got to be mindful that there is a pace of change that will be determined by the clients. It is going to take a while.”

There are other players, notably the insurance, legal and financial industries, that must get involved too as roles and responsibilities move and risks change.

“If the model is one where we are paid on results not fees, then the designers’ risk profile changes and the shareholder view of the company changes,” explains Vickers.

“So the professional indemnity industry; the legal industry; they are going to have to move with us. There is quite a lot of thinking before we transition into a different model.”

Unfettered new entrants

Of course, new entrants to the market would not be bogged down in such transitions – so while it may take time, the remaining unanswered question is: how much time does the industry have?

Degefa cites Las Vegas-based Kattera as a company to watch. Describing itself as a “technology company redefining the construction industry”, Degefa explains how this software company has gone out and acquired an architectural practice, then a civils firm, and now a construction firm to fabricate components in a factory environment.

“When you look at how they are doing it, they are a lot more lean and agile about how they do design and construction.

“They really have the mindset of a technology company, they really are interesting and a company to watch out for,” he says.

Founded in 2015, by January 2018 Katerra had already accumulated more than $1.3bn (£1bn) of orders for new construction, spanning residential, student accommodation and the hospitality sectors. It has grown to a global team of more than 1,300 people, attracting senior leadership and talent from groundbreaking technology brands like Apple, Google, and HP.

It is clearly one to watch and an example of what is coming at us. Watch out.


New alternatives

Here are three examples of alternative commercial models which should become more prominent in our industry. Mott MacDonald is already implementing the first.

  •  Subscription

An annual subscription is paid for access to an “always-on” decision support tool. Dynamic information is used to optimise infrastructure performance. The subscription – and the client’s decision to renew it – is based on the ongoing value provided.

  • Bartering

Sharing and exchanging datasets can bring benefits to both parties as they add value to that data to create valuable new insights or services. Such digital transactions must be structured so each party contributes and benefits fairly.

  • Payment by results

Tying fees purely to measurable outcomes drives innovation as companies strive to find as many design and delivery efficiency as they can. A digital twin can set the baseline and allow measurement to trigger payments under the contract, possibly supported by distributed ledger technology.





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