Why technicians in engineering need a more defined career path – New Civil Engineer

17 Dec, 2021 By Stephan Schneller
I envy engineers. From their very first day in the job, they can follow a clear career path.

Stephan Schneller is structural BIM lead with BDP
Become a chartered engineer (CEng), a professional qualification recognised the world over, and doors magically open. As an associate or director in a big consultancy or contractor, you can lead large teams, win new projects, set the focus for the business and become a high-profile voice in the industry.
But what about technicians who want to remain technicians?
I am an experienced engineering technician. I studied civil engineering for five years, graduating in 2000 from Germany’s Brandenburg University, before focusing on the technical side and gaining my EngTech qualification.
My CV is varied and interesting: Kurdistan Museum – Erbil; a Studio Libeskind-designed museum to celebrate Kurdish heritage in Iraq (sadly never realised) and refurbishing Selfridges on Oxford Street are highlights.
I relish challenging geometry, managing complex data and collaborating closely with architects and engineers. Beyond producing building information models (BIM), I’m looking after a team, managing resources and personal development and implementing new technical standards.
But my professional skills and two decades’ experience have not easily translated into seniority or status. I have hit a “glass ceiling” many times, all because there was no clear career path beyond “senior technician”.
Things need to change across the industry.
Running an organisation where a technician can’t progress to senior roles is just not acceptable. It must be fair. Just like engineers, technicians should get the opportunity to progress to senior ranks.
So what does the engineering industry need to do? In my opinion, four things need to happen.
Firstly, technicians need to make a bigger effort to gain further professional qualifications. They need to fight to educate themselves. They need to stand up and be proud of what they are doing. They need to make the most of their potential.
For some, this will mean progressing from technician engineer (EngTech) to incorporated engineer (IEng) and eventually to chartered engineer (CEng). But perhaps there should be other technician-specific accreditation, developed by bodies such as the ICE and the Institution of Structural Engineers, that sets out a ladder for ambitious technicians who want to further their careers yet keep their focus on technology.
Secondly, engineers and technicians speak the same language. Technicians need to bridge the gap created by complex software, which has created a divide between engineers and technicians.
Technicians are custodians of digital models, now central to the design process. Where once we had a physical drawing created by an architect, we now have complex digital structural models and architectural models, which need to talk to one another. In a further step, we are linking structural models to design software, which means even more attached data has to be managed and interpreted.
I fear that 60-70% of engineers have no idea what’s in these structural models, nor have the skills to interrogate them. That’s why I’ve been running training sessions for engineers on how to use these models; exploring what’s in them, looking at how to input data and ensuring the engineers can extract maximum value.
The next change needed is for technicians to focus more on creating more efficient, leaner and lower carbon structures by getting involved earlier in the design process.
For example, I’m currently working on calculating loads for columns and piles at London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital. I’m transferring load data into the BIM model so we can produce accurate drawings. But, ultimately, I’ve been working closely with engineers from the concept stage to deliver strategic goals: using calculators and analyses to deliver the optimum balance of efficiency, resilience and low embodied carbon.
And, finally, employers need to change; they’ve got to give opportunities to technicians to progress to senior management. Many technicians want to progress their careers but are frustrated because they are not being recognised for the expertise they bring. They have outstanding technical knowledge and a good understanding of engineering. And they have acquired soft skills such as strong leadership of teams, knowledge of health and safety and sustainable development. Companies need to recognise this.
I feel fortunate that BDP, my employer of just a few months, “gets it” and it’s possible for technicians like me to progress to senior roles here.
I’m now working with BDP to make sure we provide exactly the same career opportunities for civil and structural technicians as we do for engineers. Technicians will be able to progress to associate level, where they are part of the leadership team. They may even go beyond this to director level where they are active in industry networks and are jointly responsible for winning new projects. All this will help BDP recruit and retain top technicians.
As for me personally, I want to be stretched further.
This is why I’m organising technology training for staff at our offices around the UK. I’m also working with BDP’s central IT team to shape the civil and structural engineering digital strategy, making sure we adopt new tools in areas such as carbon calculation and floor vibration assessment, that we develop new workflows and cultivate a team of “superusers”.
I’m helping organise work placements. I’m looking after junior engineers as well as technicians, guiding them when they come fresh from university in areas such as buildability of structures.
Being part of these strategic and senior networks makes the whole role so much more interesting.
There are a few companies out there who are starting to offer bigger opportunities to technicians. I hope my voice adds to the growing awareness that things need to change.
Ultimately, I want technicians to have the same opportunities as engineers to progress in their career. But this comes with responsibility and making an effort; technicians need to develop themselves and get professionally qualified. Then there will be no limit to where they can go.
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