How hi-tech civils can attract more talent

Colin Stewart

Shovelling ballast: is it a signal to the next generation of potential recruits that civil engineering is state of the art, asks Arup’s Colin Stewart?

Waiting for a Sunday train recently, I observed with interest a group of six operatives shovelling ballast from the haunches into the centre of the track. If I had been standing in a similar place over 100 years ago I would probably have witnessed exactly the same scene: the same materials, the same equipment. Yet all around us technology has moved on at lightning pace and life today is unrecognisable from that 100 years ago.

"Is it the shovelling that’s the problem (because it is not automated), or the fact that it is ballast and not an alternative solution?" 

Civil engineering is complex, with massive capital programmes that deliver world-changing solutions, and provide a better life for all. If we want to deliver the best civil engineering, we need to be attracting the best talent to a state-of-the-art industry that lives up to its primary function, harnessing the great forces of nature for the use and convenience of people. 

So is our industry state-of-the-art? What if we compare it with other forms of engineering? And more fundamentally, are we building in effective management of new assets as a fundamental part of their construction?

You may think it’s unfair to compare civil engineering with other forms of engineering or manufacturing, particularly where we are working in the ground.

But that is what school leavers who are considering joining our industry are doing. It can be a straight choice between the magic of the mega-projects we deliver and the technology-driven solutions of other forms of engineering. The hi-tech world epitomised by areas such as Formula 1 racing trickles down to touch everyday lives and is an enticing prospect.

Of course, some will say that BIM is the answer for civil engineering. To some issues it may be, but we need to think more broadly about how technology, electronics, robotics, and new materials can revolutionise what we do. 

This would create a virtuous circle: by positioning civil engineering as a high-tech, state-of-the-art craft and profession we would attract more of the best, which in itself would ensure a host of better outcomes. 

So back to the shovelling of ballast. Is it the shovelling that’s the problem (because it is not automated), or the fact that it is ballast and not an alternative solution? 

Either way, to the folk standing on the platform, the only change in over 100 years of civil engineering practice appears to be the use of fluorescent overalls and white hats. 

If we’re going to keep attracting the best people to become those workers, I’m convinced that we, as an industry, need to innovate. 

Colin Stewart  is Global Rail Business Leader, Arup

This article first appeared on Arup Thoughts