Comment

The power of the pencil is strong – we must promote and inspire the young, says Mark Raiss

Newly elected as a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, AECOM's Mark Raiss says technology is good, but we must not overlook analytical thinking and the engineers needed to do it.

You could say my career in engineering started with a bang. When I was a teenager I visited a section of the M5 south of Bristol where the contractor was using dynamite to help excavate the rock and the fascination stuck. Unfortunately I have never had the opportunity to use dynamite since then – I focused on the construction rather than destruction side of things as time passed!

A few years later, as I embarked on my dream career, I became hooked on the buzz of problem solving. After four decades I still get a kick from arriving at a satisfying solution, just as I did when I was a young engineer. 

I now serve as engineering director for Europe, Middle East, India and Africa at AECOM but I am still actively involved in our project work, responsible for delivering technical designs for some of our most complex engineering projects. It's great that the company recognises the need for a detailed emphasis on the quality of our engineering at every level. My focus is on engineering that enhances a project’s ‘buildability’, helping to speed up the construction process, reduce costs and enhance the quality of the end product. Engineering is my passion and I remain committed to pushing boundaries in engineering design. I also help to encourage and mentor our young engineers, to pass on the benefits of my experience to the next generation.

I was recently elected a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, an honour that led me to reflect not only on my own career but on how much the industry has changed over the years. The biggest transitions have undoubtedly come about through the advancement of technology which has profoundly changed the way engineers work over the decades, and the changing relationships between clients, designers and contractors. I have no doubt that further dramatic changes lie ahead. Indeed they must, as engineers respond to the greatest challenge of our time and work to create a more sustainable society.

However, I would argue that while technological advancements have allowed the profession to do things that were not thought possible before, the power of a pencil in the hands of an engineer should not be underestimated. Technology has yet to replicate human judgement and creative thinking. Computers are not always right and it is important that engineers recognise when mistakes arise, whether due to faulty programming or, more often, inappropriate use. With an increasing reliance on software, the industry is at risk of overlooking the importance of analytical thinking. 

This risk is perhaps being overshadowed by an even more pressing issue – a lack of skilled engineers to do the thinking. According to the Institution of Engineering and Technology’s annual survey, published this month, our industry’s skills gap has worsened for the tenth year in a row. 

To address this issue, we must work together as an industry to inspire more young people to become engineers. Raising the profile of engineering in society, and helping to communicate what the job actually entails, is arguably the most important challenge we face. 

I have tried to be a passionate advocate for engineering throughout my career. Back in 1994, I really enjoyed presenting five programmes about 19th Century civil engineering on BBC Radio 4. The series, called Sweat and Inspiration, was designed to promote engineering to the public by telling the extraordinary stories of some of the most influential projects from the past. More recently I have lectured second year engineering students at Cambridge University, hoping to inspire them to specialise in civil engineering.

With the UK’s infrastructure now on the cusp of vast modernisation programmes, today’s achievements should be celebrated just as much as the glory days of Brunel, Locke and Stephenson. The country has a huge pipeline of challenging projects to complete and success will hinge on whether there are enough engineers and skilled workers to complete the job.

As a sector, we must think of ways to capture the imagination of young people. Outreach programmes with schools can be an effective way to open young eyes to an engineering career. This will not only address the skills challenge, it will also open up opportunities for young people that they might never have otherwise considered. 

 

I know this from experience. I have gained enormous job satisfaction working on some of the world’s most exciting infrastructure projects, from Crossrail and the Jubilee Line Extension in the UK, to Riyadh Metro in Saudi Arabia, Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Zuhai Superhighway in China and STAR Light Railway in Malaysia. Experiences I might have been denied if my wide-eyed young self had not been mesmerised by that first explosive demolition!

 

Mark Raiss, MA, MSc, DIC, PhD, CEng, FICE, FIStructE, FCS 

Engineering Director – Civil Infrastructure, Europe, Middle East, India and Africa, AECOM

 

 

 

If you would like to contact Jon Masters about this, or any other story, please email jmasters@infrastructure-intelligence.com.