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SUPPLEMENTARY READING 281


 


Civil engineering's improving image.

The Institution of Civil Engineers is to be commended for its contributions to the media through reports such as "The State of the Nation" and for its efforts to promote civil engineering through publications like "The Little Book of Civilisation". Civil engineering has also been the subject of a variety of entertaining television programmes, a recent example being National Geographic's "Megastructures" series, which featured the design and construction of the Burj Al-Arab hotel and The World islands in Dubai. Such programmes help overcome the invisibility of the profession and are to be welcomed.

Although civil engineering's popularity, as gauged by university applications, has increased recently, engineering as a whole still has image problems. Despite an overall 18% increase in home applicants to UCAS between 1994 and 2006, engineering's share of the total fell from around 4.8% in 1994 to 3.2% in 2003 and 2.9% in 2006.

However, the UK is not alone: Australia and Germany are also experiencing a shortage of graduate engineers. In Germany, where engineering is traditionally a respected profession, the declining status of engineering is being partially attributed to the rise of the environmental movement in the 1970s, which caused people to question the impact of technology on society and the environment. In 2003 the authors described a similar reaction in the UK. Civil engineering had a favourable image in the 1980s and early 1990s, when prestigious projects like the Thames Barrier and Channel Tunnel were headline news. This image was tarnished by environmental protests at Twyford Down, Newbury and elsewhere. As concerns about climate change increase, will there be a new cycle of environmental protests? In March 2008 national television news gave extensive coverage of protestors opposed to air travel and the extension of Heathrow airport.

Of all of the engineering disciplines, civil engineering is arguably best placed to overturn the environmentally unfriendly, boring image. There are many exciting and important projects currently in the news, including improvements to railways and new sports stadia such as facilities for the London 2012 Olympics. The fate of flooded


New Orleans underlined what might happen to London if the Thames Barrier and its associated flood defences are not upgraded in the next 20 years. Major proposed urban developments such as the Thames Gateway are possible only with adequate flood defences. The widespread flooding experienced across central England during the summer of 2007 not only highlighted the importance of flood defences, but also reminded everyone that a water supply and adequate sewerage should not be taken for granted. If global warming makes Britain's climate more extreme, the problem of coping with floods and droughts may become more challenging.

Of course, image is also influenced by earnings potential. Here there is mixed news for civil engineering. Civil engineers are still relatively poorly paid compared to professional engineering as a whole. Additionally, in 2003 surveys appeared to indicate that the majority of civil engineers were unhappy with their chosen profession and that 64% would consider leaving. In contrast, in 2007 they were apparendy the happiest in their field, with 58% being "always happy" and only 21% saying they would consider leaving. Working on a wide variety of projects contributed to this new-found happiness, which coincides with the industry enjoying a relatively high workload while a scarcity of civil engineering graduates has contributed to higher salaries. However, the industry is cyclical. The next downturn may reduce salaries and benefits again, increase problems with the retention of qualified engineers, and make the profession less attractive to school students.

There continues to be much good work being done in schools to promote engineering careers, and many of these involve hands-on activities designed to be inspirational. There is some loose coordination of activities but, as in 2003, there can be a confusingly large number of competing events available to teachers. To some extent this is inevitable, as different professions, careers, and trades compete to secure the best supply of individuals. For young people in schools it can be rather bewildering, especially since careers guidance continues to be minimal, which is perhaps one reason why stereotypes are so hard to change and many pupils continue to opt for what they know or feel is a safe or traditional choice.






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