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The low down IT in construction

Your career: IT

Your career is compiled by Fiona McWilliam fiona@gn.apc.org and Sally O'Reilly sally.platt@btinternet.com

Gone are the days when IT could be left to the boffins. Civil engineers rely increasingly on computers for all aspects of their work, from communications to design and conceptualisation, from project management to e-commerce.

'There has been a dramatic change in the appreciation and acceptance of IT in the past six or so years,' says John Cox, IT manager at Bovis Group. And while the construction industry may be lagging behind others in some aspects of IT, such as the integration of software and work processes, it is ahead in areas like communications, he says, citing the process of moving designs between teams.

'Civil engineers need to make sure they keep abreast of IT if they want to benchmark themselves against the best in the industry,' says David Taffs, Arup's IT director and president of the Construction Industry Computing Council.

'Take any application,' he says. 'If you're good at driving it, the chances are you know 10 per cent of the functionality of the program. You need time to spend on tutorials and exploring more about packages.'

The idea of formal training is fine, Taffs adds, but lack of time is an underlying problem; it is difficult to get people to find the time to go on courses. He believes more effort is going into promoting IT awareness in the civil engineering industry than ever before, yet increasingly training is left to the individual.

'Developments in this area are continuous and everyone should spend several days a year on IT refresher courses. We try to get close to this at Arup, but ultimately it's up to the individual and many people don't bother as they don't have the time.'

Lack of training can throw up serious problems, believes Tim Spinks, a principal engineering geologist at Mott MacDonald and founder of a successful online geotechnical and geoenvironmental software directory. 'As programs get easier to use,' he says, 'We have to ask the fundamental question: 'Are people knowledgeable enough to use them? Can the people driving these programs look at the results and say whether they're right or not?'.'

One approach adopted by Arup to help improve IT skills, as part of a continuing training process, is the use of 'champions' - enthusiastic individuals charged with explaining the capabilities of specific software applications to their colleagues. 'They're typically bright young graduates keen to use their technical ability,' says Taffs.

Both he and Cox recognise the high level of IT skills among their younger employees. Both also acknowledge a distinct lack of skills in engineers aged over 50: 'There are people who can't even read their e-mails,' says Taffs, 'But we'll have flushed them out in a generation.'

The message is clear: ignore IT at your peril.

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