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Training Debate

This year's NCE Graduate of the Year Award has once again uncovered a batch of high quality finalists. Among the skills which set them apart from their peers were the ability to communicate, manage and deal with financial and commercial problems - way bey

Yes

Universities should provide education not training. Our own undergraduate course strives to follow the maxim of Sir Charles Inglis's presidential address of 1941: 'The soul and spirit of education is that habit of mind which remains when a student has forgotten everything (he or she) has been taught.'

Of course, much of what is learnt arises implicitly. Students develop not simply through instruction in the topic, but as a result of the structured and varied range of activities found in any modern civil engineering course.

Skills learned include problem solving, creative and investigative abilities through projects and design work, plus teamworking and organisational skills. Often away from the classroom on field trips, students also pick up a thorough appreciation of the fundamental engineering science that underpins all applications. Communicating concepts, arguments, results and conclusions through presentation and discussion all contribute to the totality of this education.

It is surely no accident that many of our most able students are tempted away from a career in the construction industry on graduation.

Correctly or not, they perceive that the opportunities to apply these skills to be adequately rewarded for them and to be employed in a stimulating and challenging environment lie elsewhere.

Those of us in universities who have thought about the needs of our students recognise that the construction industry of the 21st century will require graduates to complement sound technical ability with creative, organisational, social and commercial skills.

We cannot expect to teach all of these to a high level during the four years at university. But we can ensure that our students recognise the value of such qualities and leave determined to continue to develop across a broad front. It is then up to the construction industry to ensure that this enthusiasm and promise is properly nurtured during the initial stages of their professional career.

No

Last week I had the honour of interviewing a number of young civil engineers - the final stage of the selection process for this year's NCE Graduate of the Year Award. All were academically highly qualified with many possessing a degree of creativity far in excess of that which could have been acquired in their years of study and just a few months' work experience.

It was no surprise to the judges that these candidates had an astute awareness of the issues that face the profession, and indeed the world, as they presented their views on 'engineers in society'. Given the right environment, many will become the leaders of our profession.

But while it was clear that these candidates had got this far because they were more rounded than their peers, what was obvious was that in only a few cases had the candidates been equipped to deal with the challenges thrown at them at work as a result of training they had received from university.

More worrying, was that much of the responsibility candidates had taken on had been sought out, rather than given to them by their respective employers.

NCE 's 'What's wrong with construction' poll, published in March, highlighted levels of responsibility, behind poor pay, as young engineers' greatest concern.

These two aspects of our profession need to be carefully balanced if we are to retain our best graduates in future. If we get the balance wrong, our graduates will look elsewhere for the challenge and stimulation of a truly rewarding career.

It starts at university. We must equip our graduates with a broader range of basic skills to address the future priorities that they are so clearly able to identify. As well as giving graduates technical skills, universities need to encourage development of better communication skills, a greater understanding of social behaviours, commercial awareness and a grounding of basic management techniques.

If Latham and Egan are to make fundamental changes then as a profession we must ensure we give all our young engineers the tools and experience they need to do the important job society expects of them.

The facts

Under the EngC's SARTOR rules, for a civil engineering course to be accredited, 80% of the intake must have gained at least 18 points at A level for BEng degrees and 24 points for MEng degrees.

According to University Central Admissions Service figures, there are 30% fewer students taking civil engineering courses at university than there were in 1994.

In 1994, 4,015 students were accepted onto civil engineering degree courses. In 1999, 1,488 applied to sit the ICE's professional review.

The two most common reasons for young engineers failing the ICE CPR entrance exams are lack of understanding or experience of the commercial aspects of the industry and poor essay writing ability.

Pressure from student members forced the ICE to scrap an objective for civil engineers to learn a second language as part of their training.

According to the ICE 'a civil engineering degree course at university prepares a person for many different roles in society - 58% get jobs in civil engineering, 42% in alternative rewarding careers and 100% get employed'.

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