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How to address changing skills needs post-Crossrail and Grenfell

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Challenges around costs and delivery on major programmes, along with last year’s shocking bridge collapses in the United States and Italy, have led the fundamental question being asked: just how good are civil engineers at their jobs? How easily can we reassure clients, government and – crucially – the wider public – that we have the education, experience, expertise and ongoing training to enable us to practice with confidence?

A fragmented and confused industry faces untold pressures from tectonic shifts in the way it is structured, the way work is procured and delivered, economic pressures, changing social needs and political uncertainty.

All that before one even begins to contemplate the once unimaginable effects of technology – with more to come from the likes of artificial intelligence and an as yet discovered digital future.

Shifting industry

Without doubt, the evidence suggests a shifting industry has not handled some of these changes and pressures well; be it the well documented problems with Crossrail or a number of recent critically-minded reviews related to the profession and its not-quite-fit-for-the-future skills.

Two of these key reviews were commissioned either wholly because of, or in large part due to, discovering what went so catastrophically wrong to cause the deaths of 72 people in the devastating 2017 fire at Grenfell Tower in west London.

While the official inquiry attempts to wholly answer these questions, reviews from the ICE and Dame Hackitt have uncovered wider issues to be addressed regardless of where precisely the blame lies (see box).

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Istock 518588784

Digital technology is increasingly taking on tasks traditionally done by engineers

Both of these reviews gel with a more fundamental, specific ICE review of future skills needs that together identify clear concerns, including:

  • Professional training at undergraduate level and on the job
  • Clarity of accountability in safety critical roles and organisations;
  • Balancing requirements for traditional technical skills with digital, project management and softer skills;
  • Adapting to a world where an increasing amount of work is in asset management rather than new build;
  • Assessing how competent technical and other skills are within civil engineering
  • Encouraging and enabling more sharing of lessons from failure or whistleblowing.

These concerns were among the wide-ranging and searching questions addressed at a recent New Civil Engineer round table debate on the future of skills. Industry leaders in attendance remained conflicted about exactly what would constitute an ideal blend of technical and soft skills, and whether traditional engineering skills should dominate, or whether that blend should be created by bringing in wider skills from outside the maths and science education gene pool.

Client view

For starters, do the clients have a clear view of what that mix should be?

“To deliver a smart motorway scheme, Tideway or a large railway scheme requires a huge variety of different skills,” observes Highways England chief engineer Mike Wilson. “And to say that an engineer can do all of them is wrong.”

“On very complex pieces of infrastructure, who has got the holistic vision? asks Tideway asset management director Roger Bailey. “You need somebody who really wants to be in control of that and I think some companies are a lot better that than others.”

“I am a chartered engineer and that was my route I think that’s really important,” says Phil Wilbraham, Heathrow expansion programme director. “But I also see a lot of geographers [and those from many other routes] leading projects very successfully. We’ve got to be careful that we don’t get too one-eyed about being a chartered engineer is a good thing.”

Industry View

ICE vice president and leader of the Institution’s professional skills review Ed McCann, has some insight into how and where industry goes wrong (see box).

“[The study concluded] that we commit a crime against ourselves if we limit our prime recruiting feedstock to people who were able and willing to make that personal investment of time when they were 17 [to study maths and physics].

For McCann, also director at consultant Expedition Engineering, it’s better to bring in the concept of a T-shaped personality – someone who is “broad but deep”:

“We used to use the term to describe a specialist generalist. There’s something that is really interesting about someone who specialises in being a generalist; who is curious and able to cover the breath of the project in all its dimensions. And who knows when specialist knowledge is important and how to engage with it.

“They are rare beasts but are very, very important – particularly at the front-end of jobs.”

“The pace of change today has probably never been quicker,” suggests Steve Tarr, operations director at contractor Balfour Beatty.

“Fundamentally, we look for people that have the right attitude; they have the right interpersonal skills; they have a desire and a real passion to achieve something and are conscientious.

“There’s a whole raft of skills that are more important than what they’ve done over the last three or four years [at university]. We’re trying to shift away from just looking at people who study just civil engineering.

“We quite like broader engineering programmes… but now we are looking at people with history degrees, for example. We’ve got to make sure we’re not too narrow.”

“Primarily I want people who can think for themselves,” adds consultant Cowi executive director David Mackenzie.

“My business is such that, yes, we are solving technical problems on a regular basis and … maths is a tool but it’s more the physical appreciation of what we’re trying to solve.

“The question I ask is: ‘why did you want to become an engineer? And those that come and say ‘it’s because I was good at maths and physics are not the ones I take’. I want something else; I want a desire for engineering.

The broader skills that make the most successful engineers needs to be instigated early and drilled into engineers throughout their career.

“One of the things we learn in our education [in France] is adaptability,” explains Vinci Grands Projets head of motorways Emmanuel Costes. “Something we’re looking at now is the ability of engineers to adapt … and to react differently depending on the problems.”

Understanding and delivering successful engineering outcomes “sometimes might not involve an engineering solution at all” adds Tarr.

“The ICE has about 10 criteria that it looks to be met through chartership – two and a half are technically based; the rest are in softer areas,” points out ICE past president Tim Broyd.

“I’m not saying it’s perfect but it’s an interesting balance.”

Technical competence

A modern approach to broadening skills in the industry does not mean dumbing down engineering. On the contrary, now is a time for reflection on the technical competency of those who design, build and manage our infrastructure.

That is the strong and enduring message from the high profile post-Grenfell reviews (see box).

Just because the industry has been subject to fragmentation and  a lack of clarity in accountability and governance does not excuse any incompetence.

“The issue here is that there is no such thing as a general competence,” McCann suggests. “The problem with a chartered engineer professional qualification is: [the holder is] competent to do what?

 “If you think about the competence of a pilot you get qualified … and you’re allowed to fly the class of plane you qualified on. If you fly a 737 you’re not allowed to fly a 747 unless you’re qualified on that too – it’s very, very specific. The same is true of surgeons or dentists – you are qualified to do a certain class of operation but not others.

“In my business I’m interested in people having competence related to their primary work task I’m not really interested whether they passed an exam when they were 14 years old.”

If the wider industry sees specific opportunities to create specific qualifications, and is brave enough, more scrutiny and professional oversight will come in the form of technical committees such as the Reservoir Panel, which maintains a register of approved reservoir engineers. McCann suggests it will not be necessary in all engineering scenarios but adds that improvements in overseeing technical capabilities of engineers are needed at a more local level.  

University Education

Thankfully, up to point, according to McCann’s study: “There’s no appetite for reducing the technical content in undergraduate courses.

“There’s a recognition that soft skills are really important – the idea was that you make people aware of this when they are at university and then you quickly develop them once they get into work. The view was that universities are poorly equipped to deal with soft skills given the profile of academics.”

“That’s really interesting because schools are changing,” countered Wilbraham. “Schools are now making well-being and resilience top of the agenda. If universities are sticking with their rigorous academic [focus] then it’s not going to match up.”

“You need people who want to learn and that is the key to this. It’s about learning and it’s about learning from your mistakes – because there are mistakes – and learning from other people’s mistakes and experiences and then you’ll be fine,” he adds.

In a short few years’ time – if not already – a debate solely about balancing traditional skills with soft interpersonal skills is in danger of being rapidly outdated.

Perhaps more pressing is how are skills adapting to and working with technology.

According to McCann, bosses at engineering firms view see the need to change.

“The mood music is: we’ve got to get better at digital, clients are all working a bit differently and I’m worried about Google and all the rest,” he explains.

“Yet the [workers] out on site are still sitting there typing … into Excel the same as they did 10 years ago – that gap in perception is quite noticeable.”

In McCann’s study, survey respondents did not identify digital skills as currently lacking, but at the same time identified digital as the biggest change agent.

“Everyone sees it coming down the road at them but when they sit down at their desks they’re not perceiving a skills gap in their day to day tasks.”

“It’s actually down to the companies who take on graduates and technicians to broaden them out such that they can then in five, seven or 10 years be in a place where they can add value to the start of the project,” says Wilbraham.

Arup infrastructure director Tim Chapman suggests all would do well to heed the warning that technology is set to surpass current methods very swiftly.

“In two or three years’ time, or five years’ time certainly, most routine problems will be solved by decent automated process-based computers that will do the work more reliably, more accurately and hugely more economically.

“And it’ll become bland; but it will be better and an awful lot cheaper; and clients will go for that.”

“These [software] programs are enormously powerful at running lots of options, but you still need that technical rigour to sense check it,” warns Brian Lyons, UK managing director at specialist consultant Dr Sauer & Partners.

“And only engineers can do that – challenge and make sure that the results [are sound].” 

In plain sight

ICE President Tim Broyd commissioned past President Peter Hansford to chair a review amid the fallout from July 2017’s Grenfell tower fire, which killed 72 people.


Grenfell pa (27)

Grenfell pa (27)

Grenfell Tower: industry fallout


An interim report on “reducing the risk of infrastructure failure” published in November 2017 followed by the final report in October 2018 on “assuring the whole-life safety of infrastructure”.

Key messages: interim report

Key messages: final report

Dame Hackitt

In direct response to the Grenfell disaster, the government commissioned the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety, led by Dame Judith Hackitt, in July 2017 to examine fire safety regulations, compliance and enforcement with a particular focus on multi-occupancy high rise residential buildings.

An interim report in December the same year was followed by the final report in May 2018. It identified the following key issues responsible for a systemic failure:

  • Ignorance, misunderstanding and misuse of regulations and guidance by those who need to understand them
  • Indifference to concerns raised by industry workers or residents in favour of a desire to do work quickly and cheaply
  • Lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities due to fragmentation in the industry
  • Inadequate regulatory oversight and enforcement tools – where enforcement is necessary it often is not pursued, and when pursued the penalties are so small as to be an ineffective deterrant


Further reading: Engineering education

Emerging educational establishments are challenging traditional degree-level engineering methods.

That is according to the findings of a study undertaken by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US.

Its analysis draw on interviews with 50 “thought leaders” in engineering education. It identifies the most highly-regarded current and emerging university leaders in the field.

Grad site image

Grad site image

Civils education is changing

The Global State of of the Art in Engineering Education report identifies four institutions as key “emerging leaders” in engineering education: Singapore University of Technology and Design (Singapore), University College London (UK), Charles Sturt University (Australia) and TU Delft (Netherlands).

These key institutions are part of a wider group of “emerging leader” bodies which runs a new generation of engineering programmes, many of which were developed from a blank slate or were the product of reform. They are often shaped by specific regional needs and constraints.

Distinctive educational features of the “emerging leaders” include work-based learning, multidisciplinary programmes and a dual emphasis on engineering design and student self-reflection.

What set the emerging leader institutions apart was that they had benefited from strong and visionary academic leadership; a faculty culture of educational innovation; and new tools that support educational exploration and student assessment.

The study points to a shift in the “centre of gravity” of the world’s leading engineering institutions from north to south and from high-income countries to the emerging economic powerhouses in Asia and South America.

Many among this new generation of world leaders will be propelled by strategic government investment in engineering education as an incubator for the technology-based entrepreneurial talent that will drive national economic growth, said the study.


Further reading: ICE skills review

In autumn 2017, ICE Council commissioned vice President Ed McCann to investigate the impact on skills of major industry change – accounting for technological, economic, social, educational and geopolitical factors.

The recent Grenfell Tower disaster also contributed to the motivation to delve deeper into whether civil engineers are well equipped to face today’s challenges.

  • An online survey of 1,792 members along with face to face industry leader interviews threw out the following findings in June 2018
  • The ICE must urgently review its professional accreditation process as well as CPD
  • Concerns about a perceived lack of digital and technical skills in the industry are less prominent than fears of a dearth of the less engineering-centric soft skills
  • Employers rank judgement and decision making, critical thinking and time management higher in importance than traditional “science” skills
  • Undergraduate courses are far more focused on new build engineering projects and too little regard is given to operation and maintenance, renewal and adapting and decommissioning existing infrastructure – where a great majority of today’s work lies
  • A likely call for more specialist registers and for additional professional qualifications in specific skills should be welcomed and encouraged, where there is appropriate demand.

More information on the survey here.


At the debate

This report is informed by a round table discussion held in central London in April, in association with Vinci Grands Projets. Around the table were:

Roger Bailey asset management director, Tideway

Tim Broyd chair of built environment foresight, UCL

Tim Chapman director, Arup

Emmanuel Costes head of motorways, Vinci Construction Grands Projets

Mark Hansford editor, New Civil Engineer

Brian Lyons project director and managing director UK, Dr Sauer & Partners

David Mackenzie executive, director, Cowi UK

Ed McCann ICE vice president, director Expedition Engineering

François Pogu managing director, Vinci Construction Grands Projets

Ramesh Sinhal pavements performance and strategy leader, Highways England

Steve Tarr operations director, Balfour Beatty

Hen Wagner information systems manager, HS2 Ltd

Phil Wilbraham expansion programme director, Heathrow Airport Ltd

Mike Wilson chief engineer, Highways England

Alex Wynne deputy editor, New Civil Engineer


In association with

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