Dave Gent

UK & Europe

Dave Gent is Principal Civil Engineer specialising in the inspection, assessment, remediation and design of highway and rail bridge structures. He is also a Supervising Civil Engineer and ICE Professional Reviewer. Dave is currently studying a Professional Doctorate, focusing on the future of bridge assessment codes of practice.

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Investigating new ways to solve these problems is one of the reasons I recently chose to go back to university to complete a PhD, and I was lucky that Atkins agreed to support me in doing this. Yes, it is difficult to juggle work, home and academic life, but knowing that I will influence the decisions people make in the future and that I am investigating a problem that no one else has found a solution for, gives me a real sense of doing something worthwhile.

That’s when I came to realise how important it is for companies to support and engage with academia. Funding PhD students to research solutions to the latest problems, or even those problems that have not yet appeared as problems, is critical to promoting innovation. Although usually there is an anticipated outcome to a research thesis, there could be many subsidiary outcomes that were not anticipated which could help solve other problems.

And there it is again: solving problems.

That’s why clients employ consulting engineers, to solve their problems. Linking ourselves with academia, which has a level of freedom not bound by stringent remits, codes of practice or ingrained thought processes, allows us to develop new and novel solutions outside of the typical constraints found within the industry.

I was told at university that the word ‘engineer’ comes from the Latin ingeniare, which means to contrive or devise. And in this day and age of sustainability, economy and rapid technological evolution, devising ways of doing things differently is almost expected of us. To use an old cliché, we need to think outside the box. We need to develop solutions that will use less resources, take less time to build and cost the client less money. In short we need to demonstrate that having a competent and innovative engineer on board has added value to the project.

It is the engineers in the design office or out on site that usually identify problems with materials, processes and constructability. As in my own case, once those problems are identified, academic research can be undertaken to solve them and these solutions can then be developed and applied on future projects. Identification, investigation and application are the three cornerstones of engineering innovation. Remove one and the industry will stagnate, which is why I believe it is important that the industry continues to support academia.

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These days the promotion of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) careers is big news. It has been gaining prominence for a number of years and in my days as a graduate engineer I spent a lot of time volunteering in schools, promoting the industry as a STEM Ambassador. I found it to be a very rewarding experience, whether it was a project planning exercise involving the economical use of building blocks or as a guest ‘engineering specialist’ on children’s television. Not only because I was out there promoting a subject that I have a real passion for, but because on arriving at the schools where I was volunteering, I would quite often find a group of disinterested teenagers and by the time I left, after what seemed to be a long day, I could see in the faces of those same teenagers a sense of achievement. My respect for teachers grew with every event!

Now my career has progressed I rarely get to take time out and volunteer but as a supervising civil engineer I urge all of the trainees I am mentoring to take the opportunity to do so. Thankfully Atkins, as I’m sure other consultancies do, provides a number of volunteering days per person so there is no issue of people being reluctant to do things in their own time. Even so, I try to stress how rewarding taking part in these opportunities is. The social spotlight on this area of education has only increased the opportunities to get involved.

As well as personal development, volunteering and promoting the industry also ticks several professional development boxes, which are often required by the professional bodies we all aspire to recognition with. So as well as feeling good about yourself you are progressing your career and topping up those Initial Professional Development (IPD) days.

Besides personal and professional development, promoting STEM careers is important to ensure we inspire the next generation of engineers. We are still suffering a shortage of engineers in the UK, at all levels and in all disciplines. Personally, I think this is partly due to past underfunding and partly due to the recent recession, but I also think a big part of the problem is that people generally don’t realise how varied and interesting a career in engineering is. I’ve had so many opportunities as an engineer that I don’t think I would have had otherwise. It is hard to name a favourite, but designing a ‘bat wall’ to rehome bats on the former Longbridge Plant site in Birmingham surely has to be the most bizarre.

If we can show people how rewarding it is to be an engineer then we are halfway to winning the battle.

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