An opportunity 200 years in the making

An opportunity 200 years in the making

Nick McCrossan Chair of the British Tunnelling Society Young Members and a Chartered Engineer at Mott MacDonald looks at how the industry can adapt to the next generation of civil engineers

In no uncertain terms, being a young engineer in 2018 is daunting. The world appears to have gone a bit off-kilter with a completely unpredictable political landscape, the impacts of a changing climate starting to become more apparent, and the world having to accommodate a soaring population with fewer resources to share around.

These issues will influence the type and scale of engineering solutions required to protect society but the industry itself faces its own challenges. The UK public’s perception and understanding of civil engineering is dire and a lack of diversity means that our industry woefully underrepresents society at large.

Coupling this with the fact that we are in the midst of a technological revolution, it’s clear that we need to redefine the role and image of the civil engineer.

Labelling these problems as ‘daunting’ is perhaps putting it mildly but I think I can speak for most of my colleagues by saying that you don’t join the field for an easy life. I don’t think there has been a better time to be a young civil engineer in the industry. Lying ahead of us are careers in which we will witness incredible transformation in the technological, social, economic, geophysical and industrial landscapes.

We will have the chance to face these challenges head on, leaving a legacy of which Brunel would probably be jealous. A good engineer knows how to turn a problem into an opportunity and we’re not short of ‘opportunities’ at this moment in time.

Given that 2018 is the bicentennial of the Institution of Civil Engineers, it’s appropriate to take a moment to consider how it was founded. In 1818, in the Kendal Coffee House on Fleet Street, London, three engineers met to establish what was the world’s first professional engineering body.

It should be noted though that Henry Robinson Palmer, James Jones and Joshua Field were not elders of the engineering community; they were 23, 28 and 32-years-old respectively. This was a group of young, ambitious engineers who wished to create and provide a platform to their peers for sharing knowledge and engaging in discussions on engineering subjects for the benefit of all members.

Their endeavour was the Victorian equivalent of an East-End start-up and 200 years later, the ICE has grown to an organisation with over 92,000 members around the world.

When it was formed, the engineers of the day were faced with soaring urban population levels, poor public health due to a lack of access to clean water, exposure to raw sewage and pollution, and poor inter-city connectivity.

Flashing forward through 200 years of civil engineering endeavours – the sewers, canals, railways, and motorways – and the current generation of young engineers is faced with solving exactly the same issues as our forebears.

Engineering challenges

In early 2018, the U.S. Academy of Engineering published a list of the worlds’ ‘14 Grand Engineering Challenges’. The list contains entry after entry of insurmountable tasks placed at the feet of engineers, from the prevention of nuclear terror through making solar energy affordable to providing energy from nuclear fusion.

Two of the challenges listed rest primarily with civil engineers: providing access to clean water and restoring/improving urban infrastructure. If we are to effectively tackle these challenges head on, I believe there is one challenge which will be the catalyst for making real progress: solving our image problem. In 200 years, our industry has changed from young and ambitious to expensive, sluggish and cautious. Quite rightly, this has been a result of high risk, protecting the health and safety of our workers and the public, and attempting to minimise financial impact if things go wrong.

But the result has been an industry that is slow to adopt any unprecedented change. There is real potential to change this by addressing our skills gap, improving the diversity of those joining the industry, and adopting new technologies.

In terms of the skills gap, there are two strands to tackle: lack of awareness of the variety of careers within civil engineering and the wider accessibility of the industry. In the UK, there is projected to be an annual shortfall of engineering graduates and technicians in core engineering roles of almost 60,000.

According to data released by Engineering UK for 2018, the proportion of young people (11 to 19 years old) who would consider a career in engineering has risen by ten per cent since 2013 to 51 per cent. However, when this is broken down, the number of 16 to 19-year olds that wish to join the industry drops to 39 per cent from 59 per cent between the ages of 11 and 14 years old. In just two years, twenty per cent of students become disengaged by the engineering industry and it’s clear that more needs to be done to sustain their interest.

Organisations’ efforts in recent years to capture the imagination of the next generation, such as ICE’s ‘Invisible Superheroes’ initiative, have been successful with younger pupils. But we are not capturing students at the most important time in their development.

This is reflected in a ten per cent drop in pupils sitting science subjects at GSCE level. This is linked to the fact that less than a third of students have taken part in a STEM careers activity in the last year, either as a result of limited access to careers activities or too few STEM teachers.

I’d argue that there is nothing stopping us taking the initiative and offering to visit a local school or youth group to engage students, but we need make sure we’re sending the right messages.

Drawing in talent

Secondary pupils in the UK are more career savvy than their parents needed to be. With average university tuition costs topping £7,500 per year, they now need to know about job security, salary and career prospects before they even pick their subjects for GSCE.

All too often, we let pupils believe that civil engineering is limited to calculations, concrete, and cranes but they won’t know about the headways we are making in big data, automation, the use of virtual and mixed reality in BIM. They won’t know about the role civil engineers have played in society and the opportunities they have to shape the word.

It also doesn’t help matters when they don’t see themselves represented in those who carry out STEM activities. The civil engineering industry in the UK woefully underrepresents the society which it serves.

Although efforts are being made to make the industry more open and accessible, the wider aversion that exists with regards to change also exists with regards to the diversity of the industry.

The industry needs to rapidly open its doors instead of expecting female, black and minority ethnic (BAME), LGBT+ engineers and those from disadvantaged backgrounds to adapt to the industry and to accept the outdated ‘sink or swim’ mentality. Currently, the proportion of female engineers and technicians in the UK stands at only twelve per cent while eight per cent are BAME, although these groups account for 47 per cent and twelve per cent of the total UK workforce.

I can’t speak for everyone but as a LGBT+ engineer myself, I think the industry underestimates the impact on a young person of seeing someone like you telling you that you can be an engineer too. The industry will be all the better for it as it is well known that the recipe for a successful team includes incorporating a range of backgrounds, perspectives and experiences.

New technologies

Aside from the practical and ethical responsibility to do so, tackling both the skills gap and the wider diversity problem could be worth up to £27 billion to the UK by 2022. A change in the build-up of our workforce is only one side of the coin; our reputation as a sluggish and risk-heavy industry also needs to change.

There are technologies available which will not only transform the practical aspects of construction but also the design and management. From a construction perspective, robotics, drones and prefabrication of elements are growing in demand.

To date in 2018, there have been 13 construction-related deaths in the UK, with the most common root cause being a fall from height. The potential to remove workers from high-risk areas with robotics and drone technology is key to protecting health and safety on site. These technologies also have the potential to introduce cost and programme savings for projects by facilitating site investigation data collection.

The prefabrication of standardised structural elements brings a higher level of quality assurance than in-situ construction and the ability to track and store the data attached to each material and product, in a style similar to the airline industry. The real-time monitoring of structural behaviour can also introduce targeted maintenance, with the asset telling the owner when intervention is required instead of relying on a costly maintenance regime.

An area of high potential is the application of smart contracts. Using the blockchain technology that underpins the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, traditional contracts can be superseded by one which is imposed by computer code. This has the potential to reduce operating costs by automating administrative tasks and avoiding dispute resolution as payments will only be made if all conditions of the contract are met.

The application of artificial intelligence in the design process can eliminate the routine and mundane tasks that engineers carry out, freeing them up to spend more time to create solutions to the world’s ‘opportunities’. Those worried about their imminent replacement with a machine need not be concerned however; it’s estimated that the role of a civil engineer is only at a two per cent risk of automation given the combination of management and communication skills and the high level of training required.

Speed is of the essence in this regard as The Boring Company and Google are knocking on the door of our clients, offering to design and build more quickly than we can match. With technological giants turning their focus onto infrastructure, they have the talent, technology and resources to compete against the established engineering market.

They are asking the right questions, but they don’t have our pedigree and historical knowledge of engineering. We need a step change in how we deliver our projects to ensure that we can survive against our new competitors.

If we want to revolutionise our public perception, we may just be able to manage it by combining a diverse pool of talent, the right technological tools and our rich 200-year history of innovative engineering. By doing so, my generation of young engineers may also stand a chance of delivering against the challenges that have been out before us.

There is not one course of action. Although the appropriate application of new technologies will help to plug the current gap in skills, new and diverse talent in the industry will open up ideas and solutions never thought of before – just like Henry Robinson Palmer, James Jones and Joshua Field did exactly 200 years ago.

2018-10-01T12:02:45+00:00October 1st, 2018|Magazine, October 2018|