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A lack of practicality is one of engineering’s biggest problems

Practical wide-ranging experience that enables a holistic appreciation of a problem - that’s what makes a great engineer argues Eoin Murphy, Technical Director at OTB Engineering.

“We can’t find competent and experienced engineers,” is a common lament we hear from clients and contractors alike.

And when skills are in short supply, promotion inflation often results. It leads to a hollowing out of expertise in the market. People get promoted too fast into supervisory roles without building enough practical experience of core engineering principles.

It’s one thing to draw on engineering theory, plug figures into a software tool and produce a design. It's very different to see that design built two or three times. Only through seeing something through the whole lifecycle and working out the construction issues can an engineer gain a realistic understanding of effective engineering design. And be able to bring that real world experience to bear on their next project.

Excessive specialisation is another factor and something of a double edged sword. In the UK our industry is becoming increasingly specialised. Consultant firms may have big teams of engineers specialising in one particular discipline. On the one hand that can promote subject excellence. But on the other, a siloed focus can stand in the way of a project’s success if the engineer doesn’t have a good understanding of others’ disciplines. 

So how can we address these issues?

At one end of the market, we need industry veterans to do more to share their expertise - and provide learning opportunities which are ‘warts and all’. We often learn more through understanding how people overcame challenges than through hearing about successes. Those with deep experience need to be more forthcoming about sharing and collaborating to ensure that knowledge transfer.

At the other end of the market we need to do more to engage the next generation.

We need to focus more on practical engineering alongside the theoretical and computer modelling.

The numbers of students applying to study engineering are rising but they don’t all go on to practice. It’s an increasingly popular subject as it arms you with a strong problem-solving skills base and mindset. But we need to encourage those students to go on to put those skills to use with real world experience.

And then we need to provide students with exciting, varied careers. They need opportunities to collaborate in multidisciplinary teams - getting exposure to all the component disciplines required for an effective project. 

That’s where a consultancy like OTB comes in - we certainly offer the chance to build a more rounded skillset. For example, when a client needs to design a tunnel, they’ll need a geotechnical engineer, a tunnel engineer and a structural engineer. If you're talking purely from a technical point, in our organisation often one colleague can be all three. 

For the client that means they don’t need a committee meeting to solve the problem. Rather there’s one person able to weigh up the impacts on the three different disciplines. 

Understanding project lifecycles and how different disciplines co-operate enables an engineer to have a holistic appreciation of a problem. Or to draw on that breadth of experience to ensure the problem is correctly defined in the first place.

Ultimately, practical wide-ranging experience is what makes a great engineer. And when great engineers are in short supply, those that are well rounded will be in demand.


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