By Jonathan Smith

Last year I embarked on a yearlong journey as an apprentice for the President of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

I have reflected on my experiences in previous blogs (see The President will see you now and The Apprentice, I was hired!) but as my role came to an end, I felt it was the perfect time to reflect on the experience and have three main observations from the year.

  • Changing mindsets takes time

Throughout the year I was involved in many conversations about industry transformation and how the construction industry could (or should!) evolve and change its mindset to better meet the needs of future generations. I was privileged to sit on the ICE Northern Infrastructure Steering Group, working alongside 12 industry leaders, to compile the ’Delivering a Northern Infrastructure Strategy‘ (which can be downloaded here). The document outlines proposals for the North of England, which range from infrastructure to development skills and diversity within the industry. This document promotes a significant change in approach to the infrastructure development for the North of England and the report has gained significant support and interest since its launch. However, as with many things, changing mindsets takes time

There is no doubt that the construction industry is not as diverse as it wants to be and the phrase ‘pale, stale and male’ has cropped up a depressing number of times. However, throughout my year as President’s Apprentice, I have met many enthusiastic engineers from a wide range of backgrounds, both with many years engineering experience and those just starting their career; all of whom wanted to see the industry help transform the world. A prime example of this was at the Scottish Graduate and Students Black Tie Lunch in Glasgow. Tim and I attended the event with over 300 early careers engineers, of which nearly half were women and there was hardly a ‘pale, stale male face in the house’! In my humble opinion, if the industry can keep these young engineers engaged and working in the construction industry, change is definitely coming – it may just take a little time for it to show its face!

  • Relationship building is a process.

The importance of business development and networking is second to none in the industry, but what I saw throughout my year was the process of building those relationships. When I attended Tim’s Presidential Address at the start of my year, I entered a drinks reception of 200+ people and knew literally no-one. After a year attending President’s visits, ICE meetings and other projects, when I returned to One Great George Street for Lord Robert Mair’s Presidential Address, the change was remarkable. I was amazed at the number of people, including past presidents, ICE council members, hugely enthusiastic young engineers and those managing significant infrastructure projects across the UK, whom I now know, could have a conversation with and who actually wanted to speak to me! I don’t know what, if anything, these conversations will lead to in the future but I know that it was these people that made the year so valuable and I can’t wait to see what happens next!

  • Professional presentation matters

I run the risk of ‘a’ stating the obvious and/or ‘b’ sounding arrogant and like a cheesy self-help book but, this year has shown me so clearly that having confidence in yourself, your beliefs and opinions and the work that you are doing goes a long way as you build your career and professional network. In one of my very first meetings alongside Tim, on a Presidential visit, I found myself disagreeing with the conclusions the room were reaching around paths into engineering and beginning to discount certain training routes. Tim asked if I had anything to add (maybe sensing I was not in total agreement) and I did my very best to explain that a wide range of routes into the industry had many positives and ensures the diverse workforce we all long to see. After the meeting I was personally thanked by a number of the meeting attendees and was reassured that whilst I could have sat and agreed with the room, by speaking politely and professionally my opinion was positively accepted by all. This experience gave me confidence to speak my opinion in all the different situations I found myself throughout the year and, whether I had answers to questions or not, people genuinely wanted to know my opinion and they respected my views as a confident professional. That confidence has seen me through the year and although I may not have the answer to a question, people respect a considered professional opinion and it is always worth sharing your ideas, afterall, they have asked for your thoughts therefore they want to listen.

Throughout my year I have learnt so much and experienced a different side of the industry to my everyday of structural building design, covering government policy on infrastructure, interacting with the media and how to keep engineering relevant to the world we now (and will) live in. I don’t know what the future will hold for my involvement in the ICE, but I know that I am part of an industry that has the real potential to shape this nation and the world and that is something I have to be a part of!

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Jonathan Smith, Volunteering, Working at Cundall


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