Saturday, 2 April 2016

Engineering: The Perfect Retirement Job?

I was interested to read a piece in Infrastructure Intelligence this week which suggested that the engineering industry is losing out on the experience of older people by failing to support them in later life. This surprised me, because that hasn't been my experience at all. 
I'm thinking of several people for whom engineering has proved the ideal retirement job, provided that companies allow them to focus on doing what they do best: great technical work and passing on their expertise to the next generation. After all, who would willingly give up a job as endlessly fascinating and useful as bridges and railways, roads and flood defences?

One former colleague proudly writes at the top of his CV (which runs to 10 pages of papers, presentations at conferences and major project experience) that his proudest achievement is that "I have acted as Supervising Civil Engineer for 8 people and they all passed their professional review, several with merit". 
When people come to him asking about his CPD plans, he replies that since he intends to retire in a few years or so, his plan is to help as many younger engineers progress as he can, for example by co-writing papers for major conferences and putting his own name second. 
In another place I worked, we loved Geoff who was in his early seventies and worked 2 days a week, primarily checking and reviewing design work and mentoring younger engineers (he was SCE for half the office). He only stopped working when his wife became ill and needed him at home as a carer (so you could argue he didn't retire, he just changed job...)
And they are not alone: last year I helped with the ICE's annual audit of CPD records, which are mandatory for SCEs and Reviewers (ie the people most involved in training and assessing professional engineering qualifications). That meant that around 50% of the sample were retired people still involved in training civil engineers and it was a joy to see just how much they keep contributing to the profession after their days of working full time are over.
Then there are the Reservoirs Panel Engineers who are ultimately responsible for the safety of dams in the UK: the experience required to become a Panel engineer is vast and difficult to obtain, so you're unlikely to be appointed to the highest (All Reservoirs) panel until your 40s or 50s. One Panel engineer complained to me that his business was struggling because there are so many retired Panel engineers about who can charge peanuts to look after a couple of dams each because they already have a pension - to the extent that engineers of working age are almost pushed out of the market! I have not been able to independently verify this complaint, but it is an intriguing proposition (though dangerous in the long run, since we need a pipeline of talent coming through). 
Another example is my Grandad, who started out as an apprentice in the welding workshop (still a great route to the top in the rail industry!) and finished his career as Chief Structural Engineer for a fabricating firm supplying the construction trade. I asked him recently when he'd stopped working, expecting him to tell me that he retired around 60 or 65. His reply? "I stopped looking for work at 75, but people kept sending to me anyway because they knew I'd do it well so I only stopped doing work at 80". The work in question was mainly independent checking of structural calculations, which involves checking the assumptions and the detail, or doing the calculation yourself to confirm you get the same results. This meant he could work from his computer at home in his little office (with a working pendulum clock made from cardboard cutouts - just because!) 
And finally there is the fabulously named "WrinkleyWork", a matchmaking agency to connect older people who want to work on a part time or project by project basis with businesses who need help. I showed their ad to a former boss of mine, who simply laughed and said he had no shortage of retired-but-still-working engineers on his books already! 
So my conclusion is: engineering can indeed be a great career throughout your working life, but we need to provide flexibility. The flip side of the stories above is that we have a leaky pipeline: if we keep you involved and engaged in engineering throughout your career, you'll have a great retirement. 
But what about all the people we lose along the way? There are so many chartered engineers whose membership lapses in their mid-30s to 40s, and most of those we lose are women. We need to make it easier to stay involved through flexible working and the kinds of work I've outlined above, and easy to get back in when you want to return full time (see this research from the Daphne Jackson Trust) otherwise we won't have a diverse range of older engineers to call upon when we need their expertise.

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