The President of the Institution of Civil Engineers is elected annually. One of the post’s key roles is to promote the profession to the public, making the President the highest-profile civil engineer in the country.

In order to find out more, the rail engineer despatched editor Grahame Taylor, himself a member of the Institution, to spend some time in conversation with Richard Coackley, the current President. On arrival, Grahame found that the imposing building at No.1 Great George Street in Westminster was occupied by the Olympics press corps. Tackling the cloak and dagger high security head on, he was eventually let in to meet the President in his office in the depths of the building.

To the sound of the chimes of Big Ben and the Presidential long-case clock, Richard was quite animated when talking of his role. “Being President is truly seven days a week. It really is 150% full on because it’s only a short period of time that you are President and there’s a lot going on. £50 billion underwriting of major infrastructure projects was announced only this morning, for example, and we look forward to seeing if this ‘guarantees’ scheme actually leads to activity on the ground.

“This Institution is not just dealing with the interests of civil engineering, we’re acting in the interests of Society – emphasising what will be gained by having a decent infrastructure system. We’re at a stage where we need to be building infrastructure to keep ourselves effective and efficient in the world’s market.”


And you’re doing this in association with other institutions?

“That’s right. Very much so. And it’s not just the engineering institutions, there are issues such as ethics, the way we consider “place,” our cityscape. Recently, I’ve been having discussions with the Royal College of Surgeons, the Medical Presidents and the Police President to encourage the delivery of quality hospital processes and quality urban infrastructure. So it’s just not looking at relationships with Mechanical or Electrical or Railway Engineers, it’s a much bigger picture that I see of encouraging a Society to value professional qualifications.

“And the fantastic opportunity I’ve had as President is to go to Hong Kong, to the States, to Europe and to see the high esteem in which civil engineers are held around the world. It’s that global meal-ticket of providing civil engineering infrastructure to Society. We do ourselves down in the UK – yes, it is just the UK – other countries actually really value that global qualification.”

So, do other disciplines understand engineering?

“They do! And this is amazing to see. They really value the way that our professional institutions and our professional bodies work and they look, in some cases jealously, at the structure we’ve been able to create in the way our professional Institutions work. I’m delighted to be able to be representing an Institution that is seen by our fellow professionals to be working at the highest level of ethics and communication.”

Knowledge retention

With an ever moving workforce, how does “the Civils” attempt to retain knowledge?

“In many ways we can share knowledge much more effectively these days due to better technology.

“But we’re still a long way from maximising these opportunities and there’s a lot more we, and all other institutions, can do. But, you know, I can see great opportunities with having communities of excellence in specific areas of expertise, such as railway engineering, for knowledge and experience to be shared amongst members. This is what the institutions really are about – the dissemination of quality information, having virtual mentors, panels of experts sharing information. I’d love to see the day when we’re getting best practice in every discipline from wherever it is in the world and using it for the benefit of the UK Society.”

But are there specific areas of scarce resource?

“Indeed, there are some resources that are scarce – railway engineers to some extent and signal engineers in particular. They are a very small select group of people whose work I’ve been trying to foster when talking to consultancies. How do you cultivate that sort of expertise, that excellence in railway engineering, or indeed parts of the nuclear industry, which are so important and so valuable but which we’ve let go over the years and could now find we haven’t got enough of? Suddenly a new wave of projects comes along. Society wants to electrify railways and get trains much closer together to increase line capacity and what have been ‘hens teeth’ become really important. How can we switch everything back on again?

“These are the challenges we have as engineering professionals – to have the ability and the courage to hang on to these resources at times of paucity. These people are national treasures!” There’s a slight pause.

“They are, you know – and that’s the first time I’ve used the phrase!”

Future generations

There was a moment of reflection as Richard spoke about attracting the next generation of engineers.

“Any career starts off with simple work. But this grows quickly to bigger projects. You don’t realise how quickly time has gone by until you’re advising Government on billions of pounds worth of infrastructure when actually it was only a few years ago I was designing it!

“I say to youngsters that they can take their career anywhere they like in the world and to whatever level they want. But first of all it’s important that we provide our young people in school with an understanding of engineering. I visit schools in any moment I’ve got spare and specifically in primary schools. We have to capture the imagination of young girls and boys – it’s not a gender thing at that stage, it’s simply engineering – and show them what can be done.

“I said in my inaugural address that science and maths needs to be your friend so that you can ask your friend what it’s all about. And when they’re 11 – 14 years old, working out what they want to do, they need to realise that there is a career – a profession – in civil engineering that can give them fantastic satisfaction.

“Not many people talk about it, but there are a lot of senior civil engineers out there dealing with government at the highest level so I think that it wouldn’t do us any harm to put some of these people – these quiet civil engineers – on a pedestal and for some of the young people to realise what the profession can really offer them through their career.”

Railway qualifications

The President was asked about the National Skills Academy for Railway Engineering and how it fits into the overall picture for granting engineering qualifications.

“It’s a valuable and pertinent query! I think that first of all, having areas of special practice to teach engineers to learn about areas of the profession, whether it’s in tunnelling or railway engineering or in any expertise, is sound because it goes back to my statement earlier. We have lost a lot of capability and therefore we need special academies to concentrate on these areas of expertise. I think there’s a lot more that needs to be done with the academies to strengthen them and this is just the start but I would like to see them be very successful.

“But as far as qualifications are concerned, it needs to be simple for Society see what a professional qualification is as a civil engineer. So Society can see that there are railway engineers, but they are part of the civil engineering community although having much more expertise in railway matters.
“When it comes to the global professional ticket I mentioned, the Institution of Civil Engineers qualification is that global ticket – it’s right up there at the top – the gold star. I would not want to see a broken market place of professional civil engineers.”

The alliancing concept

The railways have embarked on alliancing contracts. With the much wider view of construction generally, how does the President view the alliancing concept?

“Alliancing, for me, is the way forward. It’s all about people sharing concerns before the concerns have happened. It’s about realising the value from communication and dialogue between people who have wide knowledge and experience. It has got to be better for someone who’s delivering, to speak to someone who’s designing rather than having people sulking in their own boxes.

“There are vast changes of culture going on and it can be quite hard for some people to adapt. The ICE has moved entirely towards the NEC form of contract which is about alliancing. We’ve publicly stated that we believe the future is the NEC.”

“The railways have a long history of conventional contracting and then suddenly engineers are required to encompass alliancing. Some people are actually enjoying it because at last they’re given a huge freedom to think and say something.

“Which all neatly takes me back to what I stated earlier. There will be a point when Society will realise that there’s a special profession out there – civil engineering – that works together for the benefit of Society.

“And this is, of course, what our original charter was for – it’s right there on the wall. It’s not changed in nearly two hundred years and it is all about delivering for Society, not for the benefit of civil engineering.”

Visionaries and economists

Sir John Armitt was recently reported as saying that he had little time for economists and that the industry needed visionaries.

“I have a similar issue when it come to economics – not economists – and the challenge we’ve got with economics is that it pays little regard to the value of infrastructure a long way into the future. We need to deliver major infrastructure that is necessary for our children’s children. We alone can build it now for them to gain the value – however they gain that value. So, with the way in which economics and the rates of return work I would say that I strongly agree with Sir John.

“And I strongly agree that there need to be visionaries – leaders. We need leaders in politics. We really need leaders in politics! I believe we have leaders in the civil engineering industry, but what we need is leadership that provides those with the funding and finance with comfort that the political risk is minimised. Nowadays, construction risk is minimal. Currently I think it’s all about political risk. Leaders need to be showing the way ahead to reduce that political risk.”
And could these leaders be civil engineers? “Yes! Certainly and very importantly.”

Multi-skilled engineers

Perhaps one of the strengths of the profession is that engineers have many skills – many strings to their bows.

“You’ve read my Presidential address! You’ve not necessarily seen my portrait though because it’s obscured at the moment, but there’s a double bass in the background – just hidden in the corner. That’s because I am a musician as well as a civil engineer. I wanted my double bass in there because I feel we know very little about our Presidents of the past as people. For example, if I researched John Rennie, who was as important as Telford, I would find that he journeyed around the country non-stop doing civil engineering. But, you know what, he was also a clarinet player and we never knew that until just a few months ago. He wasn’t just an engineer, he was a person with many other attributes and talents.

“For me, the whole engineering profession is like an orchestra and I would like to see all of the aspects of the engineering profession being like the musicians, the clarinet players, the double bass players, the violin players working together to produce a polished performance. It’s the end product that is important – not the violinist or the double bassist.

“For my Presidential reception in the summer here in ICE’s Great Hall, I invited civil engineers who played musical instruments to come and play in front of the assembled company. That was a first!

“You find that civil engineers have many talents. What my address was all about was making the most of those talents. For example I’d like to see more engineers – including civil engineers – in politics. And involved in the House – both Houses in fact. We’ve got two at the moment in the lower house. I know that people want to have their voices heard as civil engineers and I’m sure that Society would love to hear from them. That podium could be the Houses or in local councils working in our communities.”

Influencing government

“So yes, this is a special time. A time when replacement and refurbishment of our infrastructure is needed and when we can plan for Society for the next hundred years. And a time when we are confident Government understands the need for investment and the urgency. The ‘guarantees’ scheme launched this morning, which we spoke about earlier, is yet another example of government putting its money where its mouth is.

This follows the Prime Minister himself standing right here at the ICE earlier this year, setting out Government’s commitment to infrastructure delivering as a central plank of its growth plan. The challenge however is in implementation – actually ensuring these plans and initiatives deliver the desired outcome. And the ICE is all about influencing the will of government to deliver.”

You reckon that they’ve listened to the Civils?

“Yes. Our closely working with the Treasury and quietly informing government has paid dividends. That’s the duty of this Institution – sharing the expertise of our members. Not just dealing with the interests of civil engineering, but acting in the overall interests of Society.”