This new framework is building the future of construction engineering

A new Construction Engineer Learning and Development Guide has been developed in a partnership between Engineers Australia and the Australian Constructors Association.

The numerous and diverse challenges in construction engineering over the past several years have opened up many opportunities to advance the sector. Those solutions have been developed in a partnership between Engineers Australia (EA) and the Australian Constructors Association (ACA).

The sector’s challenges include talent shortages, lack of diversity, the need for new learning and development programs and entirely new skillset requirements. They add up to new opportunity, greater transparency and more consistency.

These challenges point to an abundance of work and of choice. They indicate the increasing levels of responsibility and respect being held by engineers. And they suggest a future in which career paths and professional recognition become clearer, resulting in greater engagement, satisfaction and retention.

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Sarah Marshall.

“One of the challenges in the industry is attracting and retaining more engineers,” said Sarah Marshall, General Manager of People, Safety and Sustainability at Fulton Hogan.

“We are in the middle of an infrastructure boom which is predicted to last for at least another 10 years.  This is a great problem to have, however there are some significant challenges.

“Right now, our existing engineers are facing challenges and gaps around career progression and development. Traditionally engineers would spend a lot more time learning on the job and their career progression, whilst relatively informal, was very clear. However, these days projects are much larger and more complex, and resources and expertise are spread so thinly on the ground. There is no time and limited resources to do this on-the-job training.”

This initiative between EA and the ACA will bridge that divide and fill some of the gaps in engineering development, improve consistency of the career path for an engineer across the industry and also improve the transparency of career progression.

“This will help new entrants and those from diverse backgrounds,” Marshall said. “What you need to do to advance your career as a construction engineer is no longer a mystery.

“Further to this, for engineers seeking chartership, there has been a lack of a clear pathway for construction engineers, as opposed to civil or structural engineers. There are different skillsets required for different types of engineers and we are seeking to address that.”

Sarah Marshall

Why is a learning and development guide necessary?

A background paper informing the development of the new Construction Engineer Learning and Development Guide highlighted specific concerns revealed during a consultation process within the construction and infrastructure sectors.

They included:

  • Issues around the rapid rate of progression of engineers, brought on as a result of pressure on human resources. This could result in engineers occupying roles and taking on responsibilities exceeding their competency and experience levels.
  • Inconsistency in training and development of engineers across the industry, leading to misalignment of competencies with standard industry grades and roles.
  • Limited relevance of existing industry training courses, leading to skills gaps.
  • The potential for EA’s Chartership framework to better align to career development pathways within construction
  • Aligning skills and competency to address evolving obligations on engineers in various jurisdictions across the country (e.g: Design and Building Practitioners Act)

“I think we’re seeing some of these shortcomings in major infrastructure projects,” said Dr James Glastonbury, McDonnell Dowell’s Executive General Manager Engineering, Technology and Innovation.

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Dr James Glastonbury.

“We are stretched for resources at all levels in engineering and technical roles across the country. We’ve got a huge infrastructure task and we’re exploring and stretching the capacity of the current pool of talent.”

However, this challenge is not unique to our age and is also only partly driven by the pandemic.

“We had to import industry leadership in the past, for projects like the Snowy Mountain Scheme,” Glastonbury said.

“The answer isn’t always in finding talent from overseas and bringing it in, particularly in a COVID age where the ability to do that is constrained. We have to be challenging ourselves to do more with less and to remove some of the waste and inefficiency, etc.”

Where are the skills gaps in construction engineering?

How does a Construction Engineer Learning and Development Guide address a skills gap? It does so in several ways, said Jayne Whitney, Chief Strategy Officer at John Holland and ACA board member.

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Jayne Whitney.

“In the spirit of trying to raise capacity, we need the industry to be attractive,” she said. “That means there must be visible career paths. People must be able to see their future.”

A learning and development guide for different levels of responsibility and seniority makes the pathway very clear, and hopefully more accessible, Whitney said.

It offers individuals greater control over their own progress if they can clearly identify the skills, knowledge and experience they will require to be able to take the next step up.

A framework is also very useful for organisations, as it helps them respond to capability gaps by providing relevant learning and development programs for their people.

“One skills area we’d like to see better developed is leadership,” Whitney said. “Engineers’ technical capabilities are not in question, but we’d like to see more of those softer skills, the human skills. They’re going to be essential for taking engineers through their career path.”

Jayne Whitney

What exactly are the essential “human skills” for construction engineering?

“These new essential skills are things like stakeholder management, community engagement, communication, emotional intelligence, diversity, inclusion, etc.,” Marshall said.

“These human skills are often the most difficult to acquire. But if engineers are leading billion-dollar projects, they absolutely need them.”

For example, Marshall explained, engineers are typically excellent with physical safety, but not psychological safety.

“They don’t get that training,” she said. “I’m always having conversations with senior project engineers about mental health, and about diversity and inclusion. The message I get in return is that no one ever taught us how to do this. They were just taught the technical aspects of building things.”

The learning and development guide is aimed at achieving a new level of consistency in the training of engineers across the construction sector, Glastonbury said.

“That’s not to take away the ability for any individual firm to develop engineers in the manner they choose,” he said.

“It’s more closely related to the issues of huge infrastructure tasks, and asking people to step into roles that maybe they’re not quite yet ready for. This learning and development guide defines the minimum levels of competency expected at standard grades across the sector.”

What’s tech got to do with it?

In other industries and professions, as thought leaders discuss working smarter and doing more with less, they inevitably begin to discuss data-fuelled technological transformations.

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Peter Bennett.

That’s certainly part of the solution in engineering and construction, said Peter Bennett, CEO and Managing Director of Clough and ACA non-executive director. If we’re to hit more deadlines and come in on or under budget on major projects, technology will be a part of the solution.

“If you look at the advances in software and modelling and so on, in relation to pressures on cost, we’re designing structures much more cost-effectively because we’re able to reduce concrete volumes, for example,” Bennett said.

“We’ve got design tools and computer-aided models that allow us to really optimise and minimise some of those elements, to the point where they’re starting to create constructability issues because we’ve not integrated design with construction appropriately.”

Therefore, the industry doesn’t just need data and technology experts, it needs engineers with greater data and technology knowledge, he said.

Whitney agreed. Success will not come from technology alone, she said. It’s about ensuring engineers have excellent technology skills.

“I would say technology has the potential to be a significant lever,” Whitney explained.

“We’re at a point where, with our resources so constrained, we have to find ways to be better. Technology will play a part in driving productivity.”

What changes can engineers expect?

A great deal of consideration has been put into how to communicate the Construction Engineer Learning and Development Guide to the sector, and how to engage engineers and others in the new framework and in its possibilities.

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Bede Noonan.

“I think there’s a very positive side that comes from breaking down barriers,” said Bede Noonan, CEO of Acciona and board member of ACA.

“Engineers who work in professional design engineering firms enjoy the benefits of professional recognition for their years of experience. Acknowledging those in the construction stream in the same way will assist in breaking down barriers between construction and design. Barriers are created by inconsistent naming conventions.”

The learning and development guide will provide a tangible and consistent way to understand what a career in the construction sector looks like, said EA’s Chief Engineer Jane MacMaster FIEAust CPEng.

“It will give engineers a new way to understand and plan how they could expect their career to evolve,” MacMaster said.

“It has milestones and expectations, skills and competencies, so provides a guide for how you could develop your career, from graduate through to executive.”

Jane MacMaster FIEAust CPEng

Across all engineering-related sectors there’s an increasing appetite for the development of high-performance workplaces, MacMaster said. This is partly playing out as an increasing demand for credentialled engineers, which the framework will help guide.

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Jane MacMaster FIEAust CPEng.

Practically, and particularly from the EA and ACA angle, the community of practice around the learning and development guide will lead to more formal support and collaboration for construction engineers.

“It means they’ll have forums to get together to discuss shared challenges and solutions,” MacMaster said. “It will provide an avenue for lifelong learning and professional development programs.

“There will also be the opportunity for members to contribute to policy and advocacy that pertains to their area of practice. So there will be numerous ways people can get together and strengthen their area of engineering.”

Perhaps the greatest aspect of the new guide is what it represents, MacMaster said. It’s an example of various stakeholders within the construction sector coming together to produce a tool that will benefit the entire sector.

Such collaborations are going to become increasingly essential as we forge our way into the future, Glastonbury said.

“We have a huge infrastructure task ahead of us,” he said.

“We can throw ourselves at the task in the same way we have in years gone by, but we will only be able to deliver so much and we’ll be stretching people into roles that maybe they’re not entirely ready for. In doing what we’re doing now, we’re organising ourselves in a smarter way.”

View the Construction Engineer Learning and Development Guide.


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