Engineering a future

The voice representing engineering students tells Roger Trapp that the much-maligned profession has a vital role to play in shaping society
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IF ANY students need convincing about the rich variety of jobs offered by civil engineering they need look no further than the career of the woman charged with representing their views to the Institution of Civil Engineers.

Since starting in the profession in 1990, after receiving degrees from Newcastle and Durham universities, Alex Ritchie has worked as a geotechnical engineer, in the UK and Australia. In this position she has taken responsibility for the key aspects of landfill, property and opencast coal sites. Now land quality manager for the National House Building Council, Ms Ritchie, 30, is responsible for developing standards and guidance for construction on contaminated land, an all-important role now that the Government has set a target of putting a substantial proportion of the planned 4.4 million new homes on such sites. And all that is in just one area of civil engineering.

As she points out, civil engineers are also highly involved in the construction of roads and bridges, of sea defences and flood-control measures, as well as such high-profile projects as dams, reservoirs and power stations. And though there is always a demand for such skills somewhere in the world, the current buoyant UK economy means that for the first time in a while they have been at a premium in this country.

"There always were jobs throughout the recession because bridges and roads needed to be constructed," said Ms Ritchie shortly after she became chairman for the ICE's graduates and students national committee last year. "But things are becoming a lot better, right up from graduate to senior director level."

The main responsibility of the post is to ensure that the interests of the students and new graduates who make up about a third of the organisation's 80,000 membership are looked after in terms of training and general development within a profession that is often widely misunderstood.

The institution is active in meeting MPs and other opinion formers in an effort to get across its message that engineers have an important role to play in developing the earth and its resources for the benefit of present and future generations. But Ms Ritchie is conscious that projects such as the Newbury bypass and Manchester Airport extension have given the impression that engineers are "environmentally unaware".

In fact, she says sustainability is "one of the over-riding factors in engineering work and is partly responsible for the growth of the sort of work she does. But she does accept that just as all kinds of companies are learning that they have to take the views of the community into consideration when making plans, so engineers too must acknowledge the views of society at large.

Pointing out that engineers are used to working in teams alongside surveyors and architects, she said: "Society is part of the team as well because of the way these professions are directly linked to the quality of life. They know the areas being developed better than some of the engineers working on the project."

Nevertheless, she was adamant that one of the real motivators of what is a challenging profession was being able to see something such as the Severn Crossing Bridge, knowing that you personally had a hand in it. And she was equally insistent that being a woman was not the disadvantage that many thought.

About 50 per cent of the graduates and students' committee are women. Out on the job, according to Ms Ritchie, it was irrelevant whether you were a man or a woman. "I don't think there's prejudice at all. It's really no different in any other profession. You've got to work hard and you've got to prove you can do what everybody else is doing," she said.

Having stressed that she thought engineering was no greater threat to family life than many other professions, she added: "I think women are much more accepted, I don't think it will be too long before a woman is president [of the institution]."