Where do we get our dam engineers?

29 February 2008

Dams help ease the plight of millions without adequate water, sanitation or power, but there is a worrying skills shortage. Prof Andy Hughes, director of dams and reservoirs with Atkins, examines the challenge of finding the next generation of engineers

There are currently plans to build more than 30,000 dams around the world, as well as to raise the height of a large number of existing dams. Some of these schemes will involve very large structures with associated infrastructure and their construction will pose significant challenges. One of the biggest is how to solve the problem of a chronic worldwide shortage of skilled dam engineers.

The UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering reported more than a year ago that the number of young people studying for engineering degrees had fallen sharply and, of those that took the qualification, only half entered the engineering profession.

This has raised concerns that supply of suitably qualified people is insufficient to meet the increasing demands on the already busy dam engineering profession.

This begs two fundamental questions: Why have we got ourselves into this position, and how can we get ourselves out of it?

Uncertainty in the dam engineering sector over the last 30 years has certainly played a part in the shortage of skilled engineers in the UK. Engineering generally has suffered from a poor image, and training and succession planning have often been inadequate or completely lacking. Exacerbating the problem, many senior people with the experience and skills most needed are now on the verge of retirement.

I believe it is not too late for us to manoeuvre ourselves out of this critical situation. However, it will require passion and commitment as well as understanding. We need urgently to take two steps:

• Raise the profile of dam engineering.

• Increase awareness of and knowledge about the benefits that come from the construction of dams.

Inspire and Educate

Too often, the only time the public hear about dams is when there is a failure, a cost overrun or a desire to build a new dam. It is at these times that ‘anti-dam’ organisations seem able to attract huge amounts of media coverage, creating a negative perception of dams and the dam industry.

There is a pressing need for us, as individual engineers and dam engineering organisations, to do as much as possible to extol the benefits of dams around the world and raise their profile in a positive way, and the industry clearly recognises this. For example, the international-commission-on-large-dams (icold) recently published an excellent document entitled ‘Dams and the World’s Water’ and the-british-dam-society (BDS) purchased copies to send to 4000 geography teachers in UK secondary schools in an attempt to help educate young people.

A fantastic start, but there is much more to do. We must educate the public, including those young people who aspire to become engineers, to understand the huge benefits that come from building dams and that dam engineers also try their hardest to minimise any non-benefits.

The only people who really know how exciting, varied, and rewarding the job of dam engineering is are the dam engineers themselves. But there is a need to encourage and inspire all – school children, undergraduates, postgraduates, anyone considering engineering as a career.

Many years ago, when I started work I attended a lecture by a practising engineer and when he finished I said to myself that I wanted to work for him. Unfortunately, he worked in sewerage, but he had passion for what he did and he inspired people, making them want to do the same type of work.

Much of the work we will do on dams, particularly in the UK, will be associated with the upgrading, maintenance and repair of ageing structures. Practising engineers must educate the young engineers into recognising not only how interesting but also just how valuable is that type of work.

Training and Knowledge Transfer

Companies must start to invest in training to create the engineers that are needed in the future. Atkins has already commenced a structured programme of training in dam engineering for a number of staff in offices throughout the UK so that it will not only be able to provide a service throughout the country but also locally to clients.

More generally, the industry needs to develop a set of training courses to cover all aspects of dam and hydro engineering. Some of these courses need to be delivered by those practising engineers and experts in their fields who are fired with passion to train and excite further generations of engineers. This training and knowledge transfer is essential to rebuild the skill base for the future.

In conjunction with a major university, Atkins is currently helping to build a ‘centre of dam excellence’, which will focus on all aspects of dam and hydro engineering and provide courses and training at all levels including undergraduate and postgraduate. The centre will also support an extensive programme of research via PhD and EngD programmes. The proposed start date is October.

On top of this, there will also be specialist and customised courses for companies and professionals with particular needs, including dam owners and consultants as well as training in support of Continuing Professional Development (CPD).

We need to ensure knowledge transfer applies to individuals and teams and to include identification of what knowledge needs to be transferred, an assessment needs to be carried out, the information needs to be captured and then transferred. Techniques should probably include job shadowing, mentoring, peer review, formal training, etc.

The Next Generation

As the 19.1M baby boomers in the UK start to retire, there are not enough Generation X’ers to replace them, so the retirees will be replaced over a long period by Generations X and Y. These generations are very different from the baby boomers, with different aspirations, demands and even goals. It is imperative as we plan for the future that we understand the upcoming generation’s alternative outlook. If we address some of the training and succession planning needs now, and attract and train the engineers we need, we will have a chance of meeting the needs of the future.

Characteristics of Generation Y

People in this group:
"¢ Look for a strong employer brand.
"¢ Need to be treated and awarded as individuals.
"¢ Challenge and question.
"¢ Are driven to make a difference.
"¢ Have environmental concerns, and yet are mobile.
"¢ Look for career progression.
"¢ Like to work on meaningful work/projects.
"¢ Work to live rather than live to work.
"¢ Expect to work overseas in their lifetime.
"¢ Expect to have 10-14 jobs by the time they are 38
"¢ Expect the organisation to be socially responsible to the employees and the community - and expect to see evidence of that social responsibility.

A summary of needs

To secure the future of the dam engineering profession, practising dam engineers need to inspire young people to enter the dam engineering profession, and help the young realise that a job does not have to be enormous to be interesting.
It is important to encourage knowledge transfer in organisations, and therefore companies must start to invest in training for the future. In addition, we need to provide training courses to meet the needs of the profession.
Not least, we need to understand the motivations of young engineers.

WS Atkins workshop WS Atkins workshop
Skills shortage 1 Skills shortage 1
Skills shortage 4 Skills shortage 4
Skills shortage 2 Skills shortage 2
Skills shortage 3 Skills shortage 3

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