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Presidents Column: February 2024

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I recently learned that my very first design office manager, a proud Geordie named Alan Walker, had sadly passed away. He managed the engineering team at William Hare for many years during the 80s and 90s and was my personal mentor when I stepped up from the drawing office to the design department.

The reason for me starting this month’s column with this somewhat personal information is twofold.

First, at the very least he deserves the recognition that is equally warranted by many engineers working for steelwork contractors, during the same era when there was a significant change in the requirement to produce structural calculations to verify a steelwork connection rather than it just being eyed in by an experienced draughtsman.

This new mandate needed an extremely quick learning curve, that many would have struggled to achieve; but not only was Alan a very clever and speedy learner, he was also very magnanimous in sharing his self-taught skills with peers and colleagues alike.

The second reason is in relation to the current ongoing debate about engineering competence brought about by the introduction of the Building Safety Act.

Alan Walker wasn’t a chartered engineer, and indeed used to joke that his only recognisable qualification was a 25-yard swimming certificate, but he was extremely competent, and I certainly owe much of my subsequent career to his teaching and personal encouragement.

If you regularly read the Verulam Section of the Structural Engineer magazine, you will no doubt have noted the varying opinions around this topic and the ongoing debate about what is accepted and recognised as a competent engineer.

Becoming a chartered structural engineer is certainly one way of verifying a level of competence to produce and check structural designs and calculations. But even this requires an appropriate amount of experience that is only generated by the combination of vocational training and time. And the more complex the design, certainly the more experience is required.

The recently introduced Building Safety Act states, that ‘competence’ is a requirement on any appointed or prescribed person to have the necessary skills, knowledge, experience, and behaviours to perform their functions under building regulations. But the definition and validation of those necessary skills, knowledge and experience is what is at the centre of the ongoing debate, and my own concern is that this will only become even more unclear and complex as we drift into the world of AI and an over-reliance on computer software.

Throughout my career, I have been privileged to work alongside some outstanding and prominent structural engineers from whom I would accept and trust a pencil-drawn design solution before a complex 3D computer analysis. But where will our next Alan Walker, Joe Locke or Allan Mann come from, and how do we ensure that tomorrow’s engineers are as capable and practical despite their listed qualifications and CPD records?

The term ‘competence’ is applicable to much more than the ability to carry out a safe and efficient structural design. Competence is also required to adequately convey that design to those who will fabricate and build it, and then equally needed by those receiving and understanding that design to deliver a safe and robust structure.

In short, competence is both difficult to measure and equally difficult to demonstrate, so we need to be extremely careful how we move forward to measure and recognise it.

Gary Simmons
BCSA President

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