Gabriel Solis, assistant civil engineer at WSP, highlights some of the key points from a lively and controversial debate on this topic.
Covid-19 has changed our 'normality' in regard to the way of living and working. As civil engineers, we are problem solvers, and despite how challenging this pandemic has been on the industry, we can, and are coming back stronger than before.
On behalf of the London Graduates and Students Committee, I organised a debate - Covid 19, a friend or foe of civil engineering? It drew on the experience and knowledge of four incredible speakers, and I've chosen some of the key points discussed to reflect on.
1. Ways of working have changed
We've been forced by the extreme circumstances to adopt technology at a quicker pace and to think differently about health and wellbeing. What happened during the pandemic showed some fragility in our industry, particularly how long it took for some organisations to adapt and support remote working.
Working practice had to be revised, programmes had to be stretched out and also the pressure on keeping essential transport, communication and utility services running was immense.
There were immediate site closures and the impact on project delivery was enormous,and those that remained on site could be at risk of catching or spreading Covid. The impact of this pandemic indicated a drop of 10-25% of site-based workforce globally.
The recruitment of new apprentices fell by nearly 50% year-on-year and almost half of young professionals have lost their jobs. This could potentially lead to a widening skills gap within the UK civil engineering sector.
However, civil engineers are meticulous planners and mitigate risks. After the initial shock, new health and safety and procedures were introduced – showing there's more flexibility in the system than previously thought.
Those that were able to keep their intake of graduates and workplace students were able to offer them to join in on different projects and speak to people across the company, which wouldn't have been possible previously. The geographical boundaries that once kept people apart disappeared thanks to the improvement in video communication. We can now meet clients nationally and across borders in an easier and more environmentally-friendly way.
2. Mental health and wellbeing have been challenged
Individual personal circumstances play a huge part in how the pandemic affects our ability to work successfully. Some of the main challenges faced ranged from having the correct equipment, a quiet and private place to work to coping with limited social interaction.
There's been a 67% overall increase in the use of the ICE Ben Fund service in 2020, with 23,000 members accessing the support in lockdown. Some of the struggles people faced during lockdown included feeling isolated from one’s team and being worried about their boss not seeing them put in the hours to internalising every small problem without any opportunity to chat with someone sitting next to you.
As humans are sociable animals, we like being together. It makes us feel part of something, something bigger, something better. And we need to do it together, not always online. Covid-19 has meant that several engineers have been denied many of the activities that give their lives meaning and context.
The ICE Ben Fund was able to provide a number of resilience workshops and webinars, as well as counselling and financial services to support ICE members.
3. The construction industry is resilient
At the beginning of the pandemic, questions were being asked of the construction industry, however there was an understanding of the importance this industry has to the economy - demonstrating how resilient the civil engineering sector is.
The Construction Leadership Council is performing in a way that just wasn't feasible previously, and at the same time, we're seeing a level of communication between domestic house builders and the big tier one civil engineers and clients learning from each other.
They have never been in the same room previously, but the way that we needed to respond allowed us to work in a way we haven't before. The momentum and the confidence that the industry has gained gives us the opportunity to move forward and start addressing long-term challenges, such as net zero target and digital transformation.
4. The future of civil engineering
The civil engineering sector is more resilient than we thought, we support and help each other and together we can face any challenge. The shock event of Covid-19 has created a real change, and some companies are adapting faster than others.
I'm thankful the ICE Benevolent Fund was there for those in need. It has opened up the conversation further for people talk about mental health.
The way we look at work is different, and some people have gained a better work-life balance as a result. That balance will be important as we emerge from Covid restrictions to enable social and collaborative time with the team, which in turn will develop a strong culture.
At the same time, we can develop a new way of training new starters remotely and dynamically, which in turn will make our industry more flexible and avoid a future skill gap.