What steps can we, as structural engineers, take to raise levels of competence across the profession?

Caomhan Cronin – Graduate Structural Engineer AECOM

In the first of the 2022 guest blogs we hear from Caomhan Cronin, graduate engineer at AECOM, on the topic of improving the competence of structural engineers across the industry. This essay was commended by the IStructE in the annual Kenneth Severn Award.


Competence is known as the ‘ability to do something successfully or efficiently’ (1) and must be at the forefront of what we as Structural Engineers do on a day to day basis. The IStructE code of conduct details that it is our responsibility to ‘maintain and broaden’ our competence as well as ‘assisting others to do so’ (2), where appropriate. But how do we raise these levels? What steps can we take to do better?

Steps to Increasing Competency

Competence first starts on a personal level by taking individual responsibility. This is clearly stated within both the IStructE code of conduct and in the Engineering Councils UK Standard for Professional Engineering Competence and Commitment (UK-SPEC) (2) (3). But, the competence of individuals is only as good as the frameworks in place. Figure 1 illustrates where personal competence is influenced by frameworks established in both the workplace and academia.

Figure 1: Flow of competence in the industry

Figure 1: Flow of competence in the industry

How can we improve competence in academia?

i) Compulsory Industry Placements at University

Why not make industrial placements a compulsory part of University? Other industries such as healthcare implement placements as part of their courses, enabling candidates to put theory into practice. It would: –

  • Improve competence of graduates as they have gained experience in applying structural engineering principles in practice.
  • Reduce transition time of graduates entering the industry.
  • Encourage healthy competition between graduates for positions.
  • Increase employability.

These benefits are obtained by those choosing other paths into the industry such as Apprenticeships, so why are we leaving University students behind?

ii) Formalising Structural Engineering Specialisms

Another important step would be to require Structural Engineers to specialise after gaining years of experience in the industry. This is very similar to the approach taken in professions such as Medicine where a rotation program after University is then followed by specialising in a certain area (6). Structural Engineering as a profession contains many areas of specialism and formalising this would benefit the industry. Specialising allows engineers to learn and master skills in a certain area, increasing competence. This would benefit the industry in several other ways:

  • Enable clients to have highly skilled and specialised structural engineers specific to the nature of their project.
  • Increase innovation within industry as Engineers can focus their skills and time to specialised areas.
  • Increase productivity within specialist sectors.
  • Further increase of competence as CPD learning can be catered towards each specialism.

How can we improve competence in the workplace?

i) Mandatory CPD Programs run by employers

We could require Structural Engineering firms to run independently audited CPD programs. The companies would have an obligation to carry this out so that employees can maintain their membership with the institution. The CPD programs would be catered towards the specialisms within these companies. Independently auditing these programs would ensure that the specific skills and ability within each specialism is being met. It would add value to the industry by:

  • Increasing competence across the profession since employees are gaining CPD hours related to their area of expertise.
  • Increasing healthy competition to attract the best talent through well-established CPD programs.
  • Benefiting companies as their workforce would have the tools and framework to increase their competence.
  • Addressing the climate emergency by enabling critical areas such as sustainable design to be a mandatory part of CPD learning across all specialist sectors. Making this change could provide scope to roll out sustainability training in a similar way to health and safety. Where employers have an obligation to run sustainable design CPD as part of their mandatory program.

This solution doesn’t take away the personal responsibility we have to supplement our knowledge. Instead it provides us with the framework to improve our skills even further. Therefore, having the potential to raise competence in many areas across the profession.

ii) Revalidation of Competency and Legally Protecting the ‘Professional Engineer’

In medicine, doctors are legally required to revalidate their license usually every 5 years (4). This is achieved by regular appraisals which involve ‘reflecting on whether their continuing professional development is appropriately matched to what they do’ with their responsible officer (4). A similar system could be adopted in Structural Engineering. Ensuring that regular appraisals are done could encourage engineers of all levels to maintain and supplement their knowledge through CPD and courses. The appraisals will also encourage members to complete CPD which are related to their area of expertise. Assigning responsible officers could take the form of a similar set up with supervisors for Chartership. The practicalities of making this change and how it could be rolled out requires extensive organising.

Implementing revalidation could encourage other countries to follow suit and legally protect the title of being a Professional Engineer. Countries such as the United States and places in Europe highly regulate their industries and the title ‘Professional Engineer’ is legally protected (5). This could be the direction we go in. Upholding the status of Engineer would give recognition to the high levels of competence required to be a Structural Engineer. Making this step requires policy changes, but this would have a direct impact on increasing competence within the industry.


There are many steps we can take to improve all areas of competence across the industry. In order to do this, we must explore ideas which make our existing systems better and take note of what works well in other industries.

Compulsory placements provide solutions to university graduates entering the industry without any prior experience. Mandatory CPD programs run by employers encourage members to enhance their knowledge and skills. Specialising enables engineers to focus and develop skills even further.

An example which incorporates all the solutions mentioned is the improvements to health and safety in our industry. Engineering companies provide health and safety training, so why not CPD programs? We find ourselves in a climate emergency where competence in sustainable design needs to take jumps not steps. By making employers run these CPD programs core sustainability training can be implemented across all specialities. Furthermore, we are required to revalidate our competency on health and safety regularly through courses and tests. Why can’t we implement a similar system with regular appraisals and revalidating overall competency?

All these solutions provide a framework which encourages individuals to ‘maintain and broaden’(2) competence. They provide Structural Engineers with the tools to work more efficiently and successfully, with the potential to raise competence levels across the industry.


  1. Dictionary, English Oxford. English Oxford Dictionary. s.l. : Oxford, 2020.
  2. IStructE. Code of conduct and guidance notes. s.l. : IStructE, 2021.
  3. Council, Engineering. UK-SPEC 4th Edition. s.l. : Engineering Council, 2020.
  4. England, NHS. NHS England. NHS England. [Online] [Cited: 01 24, 2021.] https://www.england.nhs.uk/medical-revalidation/doctors/10-steps/.
  5. Wikipedia. Wikipedia. [Online] [Cited: 01 27, 2021.] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Institution_of_Structural_Engineers#:~:text=The%20Institution%20of%20Structural%20Engineers,operating%20in%20over%20100%20countries..
  6. NHS. NHS Health Careers. NHS. [Online] [Cited: 01 2021, 30.] https://www.healthcareers.nhs.uk/explore-roles/doctors/training-doctor.

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