Engineers Ireland: my start to my Presidential Year

I was approached by John McGowan, former President of Engineers Ireland, back in 2007 and asked “Chris I know you’re very busy right now, but what will you be doing in two years time ?”. So, I signed up to be put into the pipeline of Presidents for Engineers Ireland, and last night my twelve months started. Martin Lowery (ex IDA and Coilte) will take over from me this time next year, with PJ Rudden (MC O’Sullivan, Bord Gais and now RPS) takes over from Martin in two years time.

I attach below the inaugural speech which I gave last night at the headquarters of Engineers Ireland. Apologies for the length! The main points are:

  • Thanking my colleagues.
  • Innovation now being Ireland’s highest strategic priority: in my view, innovation is rather different from invention, and is also not limited to scientific and technology discovery.
  • Regret that the national transition year scheme appears to be being diminished, since it will reduce discovery, innovation and team work with our young people.
  • Engineers Ireland to take an initiative on the teaching of higher level mathematics, applied mathematics and pure sciences in our schools.
  • Increasing Engineers Ireland’s recent initiatives to assist unemployed Members.
  • Opening up Engineers Ireland to a much broader membership:
    • Opening up full membership of Engineers Ireland to ordinary bachelors degree (level 7) graduates of accredited engineering courses, in addition to honours bachelor degree (level 8) as at present;
    • Opening up full membership of Engineers Ireland to level 7 and level 8 graduates from “cognate” courses in mathematics and sciences, provided that the individual is in practice working in an engineering discipline.
  • Chartered Engineering status for graduates from 2013 will require masters (level 9) education, or demonstrated experience equivalent to masters level.
  • Encouraging and frankly expecting most, if not all, faculty members of universities and institutes of technology to become Members of Engineers Ireland, and ideally Chartered Engineers.
  • Engineering is an altruistic profession, serving society. Engineers have a duty to articulate concerns about the safety, health and welfare of society
  • Engineers in Ireland today have concerns over infrastructure issues relating to water, broadband, roads maintenance, and strategic vulnerability of national electricity supplies and grid, amongst other issues.
  • Activities in Ireland in any engineering discipline – such as civil, mechanical, electrical, bio-medical, software, petrochemical… – which impact, or could impact, the safety, health and welfare of individuals or society should be regulated so that approval is required by a Chartered Engineer. Engineers Ireland will push for regulation, and may in the short term initiate a voluntary disclosure and public register of projects which have been duly approved.
  • Ireland has suffered severely from governance failures in various sectors. Engineers Ireland already has a strong code of ethics. There is currently no national embracing legislation for good faith reporting. Members who in good faith report concerns about their employer or client, or even another Member, concerning the safety, health and welfare of individuals or society, and who subsequently feel inadequate action was taken or even worse that they were sanctioned, can bring this to the attention of Engineers Ireland which will if necessary defend such a Member.

The full text follows:

“Distinguished Guests, Fellow Members of Engineers Ireland, Ladies and Gentlemen, Friends,

I want to sincerely thank you for choosing me as your President for 2009-2010. It is an extraordinary honour. I give you my commitment to represent this great Institution to the very best of my ability.

I would like to thank our outgoing President Jim Browne for the example which he has set for me, and for the leadership he has given throughout the past twelve months. Jim focused his Presidential year on Engineers Ireland driving the “move up the value chain” for our economy, and promoting the career opportunities for young engineers in our society. Jim provided insightful leadership at both our Executive and Council meetings, as well as having an extraordinary personal commitment to being available to our Membership, our Regions and Societies, and to representing Engineers Ireland overseas, whilst all the time carrying the heavy responsibility of leading NUI Galway. Jim, you have set me a very challenging level to try and attain.

I would also like to take this opportunity to thank my fellow members of the Officer Board, namely Jack Golden, Martin Lowery and John Power for the wonderful work which they have done for Engineers Ireland and the contribution they continue to make to our institution. I warmly welcome PJ Rudden as incoming Junior Vice President. I would also like to single out John Power, and his decisive commitment and sheer determination; this was John’s second full year as Director General of Engineers Ireland, and I very much look forward to working closely with him in the twelve months ahead.

Today we say goodbye to past president Jack Golden. Jack made an outstanding contribution to the work of Engineers Ireland, particularly in developing our sense of leadership as Engineers. Jack oversaw the transition of Director General from Kevin Kiernan to John Power in September 2007. Jack also saw the momentum behind Continued Professional Development build towards 100 accredited companies: in fact under Jim’s leadership, we have now reached 112 organisations, with IT Carlow recently accredited and being our first third level organisation to do so. As Jack noted in his Presidential Address, the ability of individual Engineers to develop leadership skills as part of their Continuing Professional Development, combined with the ability to innovate and develop technical solutions, singles out Engineering as a major contributor to ensuring the sustainability of this planet, and to improving the well-being and prosperity of our society. Jack – thank you for your tremendous contribution. We will miss your insightful advice and calm determination – as well as your humour.

I take up this Presidency at a very interesting time for Engineering in Ireland. Our country has up until the recent past been the envy of many of our overseas colleagues as our Celtic Tiger economy surged ahead. Now however we are facing the most serious challenge to our economy, and to a sustainable prosperity, since the foundation of the State.

Since the 1960s, Ireland has chosen international trade as its key national focus, ultimately making our country one of the most openly traded economies in the world. However since 2004, we have changed some of our emphasis to domestic demand, driven by cheap debt financing in the Euro zone. Although our construction industry has underpinned our recent economic growth until just a few months ago, it has largely focused on domestic opportunity, in publicly funded infrastructure, commercial property and domestic housing. In my view our construction industry now needs to more proactively consider export growth while retaining appropriate domestic capacity, using the skills we have gained at home to bring new techniques, processes and skills to the global market.

Our pharmaceutical, medical device and information&communications technology industries have been underpinned by foreign direct investment, and are of course export oriented. However in our multinationals and indigenous firms, we need to be more proactive in supporting and nurturing innovation with the global market as our clear objective measure of success. Our private sector investment community, both institutional and high net worth individuals, have recently largely been focused on domestic construction and overseas property speculation, rather than investment in innovative projects with potential for the global market. Our innovators, whether start-ups or spin-outs, have found it challenging to raise their necessary funds.

A sustained emphasis on innovation for the global market should be our highest national priority. Innovation need not only be as a result of scientific and technology research, but also arise from insights in process improvement and service delivery, and in many different sectors of our economy. Innovation for the global market will yield sustainable employment. The alternative, of instead focussing upon job creation as our highest priority and ahead of innovation, is susceptible to employment only for short term, and at risk from the subsequent migration of those jobs to more advantageous foreign locations.

Ireland has benefited from our foresight of low corporation tax. It is now by no means certain that corporation tax advantages can continue to be a primary catalyst to jobs in Ireland, with pressure from both our European colleagues and from national employment priorities within the USA. While using corporation tax to our advantage for as long as possible, it is clear we need to move on and to emphasise a replacement to our strategy of tax competition: in my view, that should be innovation for the global market.

Our scientists discover what already exists in the world around us. Our entrepreneurs build businesses, sometimes taking personal fiscal risk, but often mitigating that risk by adopting business models which are already proven elsewhere. Inventors yield new ideas which did not previously exist. However, innovation lays the strongest foundation for export driven success. Innovators put new ideas into practice, bringing new products, new services and new business models to the global market. Innovation must be our highest national priority.

In Engineers Ireland, we already celebrate the most Innovative Company of the Year, the most Innovative Engineer and the most Innovative Student of the year.

Innovation is now absolutely critical to our future prosperity. It is important that we nurture an innovative culture in young adults. I am therefore disappointed to learn that our Department of Education and Science is reputedly reducing support for the transition year. The transition year has evolved to become one key opportunity for young adults to experiment and innovate in group, rather than in just individual, settings. I believe that Ireland will be poorer for this decision.

Last week, I had the honour of awarding the Engineers Ireland annual award for Science, Engineering and Technology Awareness to Jim Cooke. Jim is a teacher at Synge St CBS, and has had a remarkable record of wins, both overall and by category, by his students in the BT Young Scientists exhibition, especially those from the transition year. Indeed, Jim has just returned from Nevada where Andrei Triffo, this year’s individual winner for his project “Infinite Sums of Zeta Functions and other Dirichlet Series” has just been placed third worldwide. However, in his acceptance speech, Jim noted the diminishing availability of honours leaving certificate mathematics, applied mathematics and physics at many of our inner city schools and indeed nationwide. Honours teaching in these subjects must continue to be prerequisites for professional engineering, and during my Presidential Year I expect Engineers Ireland to take an initiative in this regard.

As well as encouraging more young people to chose Engineering as a career, I believe it vital that we provide every reasonable assistance to any of our Members who face professional challenges. In addition to our Benevolent Fund, and to our encouragement for Continued Professional Development, we are currently unusually faced with the demise of employment prospects for some of our Members especially in the construction sector. During my Presidential Year, I expect that Engineers Ireland will continue to take initiatives to assist unemployed Members, up to and including the possibility of mid-career retraining as Engineers for those sectors which in fact have shortages of engineering professionals, such as for example Mechanical, Electrical and Software Engineers.

In Engineers Ireland, in my view, we have had a rather inflexible and rigorous position in insisting that only graduates from accredited undergraduate degree courses in Engineering may become Members. During my Presidential Year and in fact imminently, I fully expect that Engineers Ireland will offer the full benefits of membership not only to level 7 as well as level 8 university graduates from accredited Engineering courses, but also to level 7 and 8 graduates from cognate undergraduate courses in the physical sciences and mathematics, whose careers now in practical terms position them as Engineers.

Concurrently, Engineers Ireland took a decision in May 2007 that those aspiring to Chartered Engineering status in Ireland from 2013 will not only require professional experience and an interview, as is currently our practice, but also to achieve level 9 (that is Masters level) from an accredited course, or to show competence equivalent to a level 9 standard. This in turn will bring us into alignment with concurrent changes in our peer professional engineering organisations overseas.

Our changes to membership – opening it up to level 7 engineers, and to level 7 and 8 cognate graduates – and our changes to the requirements for Chartered Engineering status – level 9 from 2013 – all present Engineers Ireland with an obligation to further engage with our Universities and Institutes of Technology. During my Presidential Year, I expect a concerted encouragement to ensure that our student Engineers are instructed by faculty staff who are themselves Members of Engineers Ireland, and ideally Chartered Engineers.

Those of us who have chosen Engineering as a profession, whatever our primary degrees, are devoting our careers to service to the public. Our Continued Professional Development programme assists us to maintain current with changes in our vocation. The Engineering profession is altruistic and conscious of its responsibility to society at large. It is important therefore that Engineers articulately voice any concerns to the public.

At this time, Ireland is facing a number of strategic challenges not just to our economy, but also to our infrastructure. The media and the public at large recognise that the quality of our water supplies, and indeed our sea bathing water, is not only impacting our tourist industry, but also the health and welfare of our society. Coastal erosion together with rising sea levels, and changes to our flood plains, are of some media and public concern. A world class national pervasive broadband service is sorely absent, and is commented upon. The National Roads Authority this week have raised concerns about the maintenance of our road infrastructure, including our expensively developed new motorway and dual carriageway network. In addition to these challenges, there are others which perhaps have not yet widely reached public attention. For example, a national strategy for energy security, in the face of our increasing dependency on natural gas and wind together with the retirement of elderly plants, should be a national concern, particularly when investment capital for wind farms is increasingly difficult to obtain, and the controversy at the Corrib gas field project continues. The Commission for Energy Regulation routinely publishes on its web site our national electricity generating capacity versus our consumption, yet few members of the public or media seem to observe the risk of “brown-outs” from these figures. If “brown-outs” were ever to occur then, as an example of one consequence, our Industrial Development Authority and Enterprise Ireland may overnight became dangerously wounded by international perceptions.

In some other jurisdictions, any works which may impact the safety, health and welfare of individuals or the society at large must by law be duly vetted by professional engineers – whether such works be civil, mechanical, electrical, electronic, pharmaceutical, software or indeed of any engineering discipline. In Ireland at this time, no such legislation exists and yet it surely must be in the interest of Irish society that all technology works are professionally evaluated and approved. Regulation of the the Engineering profession in Ireland is, in my view, an urgent issue but I admit one that may not be fully achievable in the limited term of a single year as your President. During my Presidential year, I do nevertheless expect that we will make progress in this regard, including a voluntary disclosure and register of those works, in any engineering discipline, which have been vetted by a Chartered Engineer.

Engineers Ireland has a strong Code of Ethics, which is published on our web site. Unfortunately in Ireland, we have learnt of malpractice and ill judgement in other sectors – for example, in our health care, in our financial institutions, and in both our local and national administrations. The 2006 Lourdes Hospital Report identified a reluctance for professional staff to report malpractice from a colleague in the medical profession. The CEO of one of our major banks has recently publicly apologised to one of his internal auditors who had reputedly been threatened by his employer. We have read of woeful corporate governance at some of our most important commercial organisations, and of regular waste of public funds investigated by the Dail Public Accounts Committee.

Our Government in recent years has introduced some legislation protecting good faith reporting, but on a case by case basis limited at this time to governing child abuse, consumer protection, some competitive issues, ethics in public office and for the Garda Siochana. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform is reportedly considering an overall national safeguard framework but has yet to present its deliberations to the Dail and Seanad.

In Engineers Ireland, while protecting the legitimate interests of his or her employer and clients, each of our Members will not, above all else, engage in any activity which he or she knows, or has reasonable grounds for believing, is likely to result in a serious detriment to person or persons. If one of our Members has such concerns and in good faith has brought them to the attention of his employer or client without appropriate response, then he or she can bring it to the attention of Engineers Ireland. Furthermore if an Engineer becomes aware, or has reasonable grounds for believing, that another Member of Engineers Ireland is engaging in conduct or has engaged in conduct which is in breach of our Code of Ethics, and is likely to result in a serious detriment to any person or persons, then he or she is likewise expected to bring this other Member to the attention of the Institution.

Engineers serve the public with very high standards for the safety, health and welfare of society. Engineers Ireland ensures that these standards are maintained. I fully expect that during my Presidential Year, the high ethics of our altruistic profession of Engineering will be maintained. Engineers Ireland will where necessary defend any of its Members who, in good faith, report concerns relating from any engineering works in any sector of engineering for the safety, health and welfare of society, and then are subsequently threatened with sanction.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I sincerely am awed by the trust which Engineers Ireland have put on me as your President for the next twelve months. So much has already been achieved by Jim Browne and our other Past Presidents. I have extraordinary high standards to try to sustain. There is still much to be done, and I sincerely look forward to serving the Profession with humility and dedication.”

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2 Responses to Engineers Ireland: my start to my Presidential Year

  1. Brian O'Donovan says:

    Congratulations on your new position. I know you will do a great job.

  2. Siobhan O'Dwyer says:

    I listened with interest to your interview on The Business this morning. When asked about your advice for technology start-ups (if I heard correctly in a busy family kitchen!) you said that Irish companies must ensure that their idea has global appeal.

    I see from your post above that you place innovation as a top national priority for engineering and for Irish business.

    I work with many start-ups across a variety of sectors and I see that many businesses (both small and large) come to market with products and services that could be much more successful if they had gone through the right validation process. A key step in this process would of course be to test the idea for global attractiveness.

    I agree whole-heartedly that innovation must be a top priority but feel that government policy is failing to create the right conditions for stimulating and nurturing high-potential innovation in some key ways:

    1) We need FREE and very accessible workshops / brainstorms / think-tanks with the world's most visionary innovative thinkers (Ray Kurzweil, William McDonagh etc.) who can show us what the new global economy might look like and what the big issues of the future will be. Parc in Silicon Valley has a great free programme of speakers backed up with e-broadcasting – where is our equivalent?

    2) We need mentoring from seasoned entrepeneurs for start-ups to help them through the first difficult years. Currently start-up incubation programmes tend to happen through universities and colleges and are led by academics. Is this the best support structure?

    3) We need a clear, simple, scalable best-practice multi-disciplinary innovation process (not a turgid book – a 1-PAGE model!) that is made readily available to would-be entrepeneurs. Sounds obvious? .. Enterprise Ireland doesn't have one…

    4) We need to invest in building heavy-hitting international sales & marketing talent, not just science and technology.

    5) Convergence is a buzzword at the moment but at the moment industries and all of their support structures operate in silos. Who will stimulate convergence by bringing these sectors together? A recent interesting Whitepaper from Frost & Sullivan (available from their website) identified multidisciplinary partners as key to the stimulation of successful innovation along with open multidisciplinary innovation eco-systems. This would be a big cultural change here in Ireland. Who will lead it?

    I also question the government's policy of allowing the academic sector to "own" innovation through the emerging network of centres of excellence which are located in Irish universities. Are the motivations that drive academic research the same as those that drive entrepreneurs? How will the research be commercialised and by whom? What are the measures of success of these models? Of course we need to use our best brains to come up with new innovations but I'm not certain that these centres of excellence are the best way to do this.

    I would love to see Ireland's business community debating these issues and would be really interested to hear your views and those of other readers. Apologies for the long post, I notice that other people keep theirs brief.

    P.S. and as an aside… I really liked your comment this morning about blogging being a way for business leaders to show that they are sincere about what they do.

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