Trust, complexity and global challenges: what do they mean for professional competence?

For decades, ICE professional qualification holders have proven to their peers that they have both the academic ability and the practical experience to practice safely. The ICE approach, authorized by the Engineering Council, is different from qualifying bodies in other countries: many of which only measure academic achievement and an experience base, and some without any formal regulation or oversight. The ICE system is good and we should be justly proud of it.

Nick Baveystock is the outgoing chief executive of ICE

We must also recognize that no system is perfect. One of the cornerstones of the ICE professional code is the need, at all times, to seek self-improvement. This applies both to the systems by which we judge competence and to competence itself. In doing so, it is worth surveying the landscape: as we see it and as others see civil engineering as a profession.

First, we judge competence on trust, but trust goes both ways and the public has to trust us, as we trust ourselves. Over the past decade, there have been several serious technical failures around the world. Instant mass communication means more people see the consequences of more disasters. Trust can quickly be eroded, and our reaction to such failures can either rebuild or further erode that trust. But once lost, trust is hard to regain and public opinion can be fickle and ruthless.

Second, engineering has become more complex. Of course, the fundamentals are the same, but the technology, the manipulation of digital data and the integration of complex infrastructure systems arguably require broader and deeper skills, which must be kept up to date and demonstrably.

Third, the ladder of the challenge has changed. The world’s population is expected to grow by up to 30% over the next 30 years. Moreover, the effects of climate change – especially in the Global South – are proving devastating. Everyone must be at the absolute cutting edge of what is technically possible, driving the solutions society needs, ensuring effective mitigation and adaptation. It will be difficult, take time, and require input from engineers around the world, not just in our immediate orbit.

My instinct is that we need a real debate about jurisdiction. We know that Continuing Professional Development (CPD) is mandatory. But in light of Dame Judith Hackett’s review of the fatal Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, ICE’s Peter Hansford’s In Plain Sight report, and the findings of CROSS and SCOSS, we should be asking ourselves questions more fundamental. Indeed, ICE agreed in light of the first two to do just that and yet, arguably, are a little more advanced.

Is it enough for a professional engineering institution to claim that one review early in our careers is enough for the public to have confidence in our technical skills decades later? We can say that we are undertaking CPD, but although ICE has created a powerful set of web-based CPD modules, adoption remains very low. The School Board seeks to mandate specific CPD topics. What is mandated is for members to determine through our professional panels. Other professions undertake CPD and re-qualification or go through regular formal examinations. Why do they choose to and why don’t we choose? Should the ICE require five-year or ten-year professional examinations, revalidation or requalification: and what would they cover?

In my tenure, this has been a marginal debate rarely addressed and yet trust is at the heart of what we do, the pace and scale of technical change is exponential and our social responsibilities are multiplying. We should be clear that if we are not trustworthy in the competence of the police, someone can choose to do it for us.

  • This article is part of a series by outgoing ICE Director General Nick Baveystock examining the challenges he believes the civil engineering profession must meet for continued success.

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Sharon D. Cole