Raising the profile

Roads & Infrastructure Magazine sits down with Victoria’s first Chief Engineer, Dr Collette Burke, to talk about her new position, its significance and the future of the engineering and infrastructure industry for Victoria. Roads & Infrastructure Magazine sits down with Victoria’s first Chief Engineer, Dr Collette Burke, to talk about her new position, its significance and the future of the engineering and infrastructure industry for Victoria. 

In March this year, the Victorian Government announced the proposal of a mandatory registration scheme for engineers. The scheme “is an example of trying to raise the profile of the profession”, Dr. Collette Burke, Victoria’s Chief Engineer, explains, “in order to highlight the importance of the profession with regard to statutory protection.

“The engineers registration scheme will provide a consistent assessment and registration of engineers working in Victoria to ensure their skills and capabilities meet the expected qualifications of the profession,” she adds.

For Dr. Burke, the scheme is an example of one of the many initiatives she’ll be involved in and support in an advisory capacity through her recent appointment as Victoria’s Chief Engineer.

“In a time of unprecedented levels of infrastructure development, it is important to invest in those who have the ability to shape our sustainable world through visionary engineering skills,” she adds, which is a core consideration of this newly created role within the Office of Projects Victoria (OPV).

The OPV and Dr. Burke will oversee the planning and delivery of Victoria’s significant pipeline of infrastructure projects, while providing advice to government when developing and delivering new projects.

Dr. Burke talks with Roads & Infrastructure Magazine about her new role, what it means for Victoria and what’s on the horizon for the state’s engineering and infrastructure industries.

With more than 25 years in the engineering and construction industry, Dr. Burke has extensive experience in both private and public sectors. Indeed, she has worked in the rail, road, building, mining, telecommunications and marine sectors. Her passion to make meaningful contributions to the industry has led the establishment of engineering consultancy and education firms Exner Group and Karsta Middle East, of which she is the Managing Director for both.

“Most of the early part of my career was in construction delivery for large construction companies. I’ve also been involved in setting up a consultant business about 20 years ago and undertaken extensive research consulting for both the private and public sector,” she explains.

Dr. Burke has worked as a lecturer and researcher at the University of Melbourne and RMIT, as well as holding many operational and management roles across various aspects of the construction industry.

Such diverse roles have not only provided Dr. Burke unique insight into the strategic development and organisational performance of businesses in construction and engineering, but it has facilitated her keen interest in the future of Australia’s engineering sector.

Dr. Burke’s expertise in civil works, building and construction, infrastructure policy, government process and legal and commercial knowledge made her an ideal candidate for the role as the first Victorian Chief Engineer. Officially appointed in January this year, Dr. Burke says a significant part of her role includes being a central advisory figure within the sector, as well as providing support and guidance regarding what is required for the state to ensure it meets future engineering and infrastructure needs.

“We need to look at the current state of the engineering profession, what skills and capabilities we require for the future and how we can develop upcoming engineers to deliver infrastructure and change for the state,” Dr. Burke says.

“In the past, projects very much used to be based on a project-by-project delivery, but we now have to consider how our future infrastructure unfolds more effectively in whole-of-systems approach. Everything is so interconnected now, so to make one change in a type of infrastructure will have flow-on effects to the whole state.

“Naturally, the engineering profession is filled with highly skill technical people – we have been more the doers more so than outward-facing types of professions. How we work, live and relate to each other will change in the future, and I believe engineers have the knowledge and capability to lead the shaping of our future cities and society.”

Having extensive engagement is a key part of the role, and an aspect Dr. Burke sees as a key step-change for Victoria in overcoming obstacles to project delivery.

“A large component of the role involves fostering stronger linkages between industry, victorian universities, professional bodies and government. One of the things we’re looking at is an understanding of the technical engineering capabilities within the sector – do we have the right skills and capabilities we need to move forward? What does the profession want to see? What changes do we need to make as a profession? What changes do we need to make as a state?”

While the role of the Chief Engineer has been established to provide advice and support for aspects of engineering infrastructure projects, another significant requirement is raising the profile of the engineering profession.

“It is essential to create a common voice of what the profession of engineering needs now and what those needs will be in the future,” she says. “That’s around ensuring we have an integrated view of government, the private sector, industry bodies and academics, and creating a more collaborative approach between different aspects.

“We have strong long-term planning in Victoria, but we also need to consider the shorter-term view of how the state will move towards future development and its potential future opportunities.

“We’re looking particularly at the amount of work out there in the market – it’s at capacity, so a priority will be to make sure that we are still able to tap into the resources available to deliver successful infrastructure projects.

“How do we best support projects so we don’t have growing issues of escalation and resource shortage? The role will focus on some of those strategic issues and trying to advise on potential initiatives to make sure we can continue to deliver projects at same level.”

The new position signals Victoria’s move towards a more systematic and holistic approach to infrastructure project delivery, one that Dr. Burke says unlocks a number of possibilities for the state’s future.

“Looking at infrastructure delivery from an engineering perspective can be a very powerful thing – I think it’s going to be more and more integral to how we develop future projects and support how we will work and live in the future.”

Meeting future demand

Dr. Burke says the engineering and construction sectors face a number of challenges in the future, given the sheer amount of infrastructure required to meet growing populations and market demands.

“The challenges we have in Victoria are the same challenges we have Australia-wide. We’ve needed to develop really great infrastructure and enhance the profession in what we’re doing. We’re also under the constant pressure of finite resources – whether that’s human resources or natural resources,” Dr. Burke explains.

In July 2016, the Victorian Government released its report, Extractive Resources in Victoria: Demand and Supply Study 2015-2050. The landmark report put into perspective exactly how the state’s significant infrastructure pipeline is going to impact on the resources sector and provide a great challenge for the infrastructure and engineering professions going forward.

The report found that Victoria’s demand for quarry resources for infrastructure construction is set to double by 2050. It identified that the state’s projected population growth and urban development over the coming decades will drive strong demand for nearly 90 million tonnes of stone, sand, clay and other materials annually. This is up from the 46 million tonnes needed in 2015.

In April this year, to address such challenges, the Victorian Government even announced an investment of $12.7 million into creating a new resources regulator – the Earth Resources Regulator (ERR) – to keep the cost of raw materials down for the state’s infrastructure projects.

The ERR aims to ensure access to the rock, gravel, sand and other resources required for the state’s infrastructure projects, to simplify regulatory procedures and provide an upgraded online application system to make it quicker and easier to extract raw materials.

Like the ERR, Dr. Burke says her role is about tackling the challenges of the state’s engineering and infrastructure projects in a systematic way. Indeed, sourcing sustainable resources to build these projects is a key consideration.

“It is an interesting time. With so much happening concurrently, we have to look at ways to ensure we have enough resources to continue to develop the infrastructure and operate it,” Dr. Burke says. “How do we do it in a sustainable way? How do we build momentum towards construction incorporating alternative and recyclable materials? We need to establish more sustainable construction and development practices. In turn, it will enable the alleviation of some demand for unsustainable resources.”

Organisations such as Sustainability Victoria are approaching the topic of sustainability in construction through their own remit, Dr. Burke points out. Other construction strategies for sustainable material use are also being developed and actioned in other sectors of the market – recycled rubber, glass and plastics, to name a few.

Dr. Burke wants to explore how the state utilises this strategy and thought process into the next stages of implementation of sustainable construction. “How do we build that business case of that whole-of-life approach to sustainable infrastructure? It’s about prompting a paradigm shift and putting in place some initiatives to build momentum.

“We’re looking at how we can, through my role, examine the implementation stage. It could be supporting the work that’s done onsite; it could be initiating pilot projects and supporting agencies when they first implement sustainable construction strategies and incorporate them into the development, procurement and implementation phases.”

Digital step change

According to Dr. Burke, part of both the challenge and opportunity for Victoria and Australia’s infrastructure sector is the transition from a primarily physical industry to a digitally driven one.

“It’s definitely an interesting time because of the speed with which some technology, digital processes and systems in engineering are developing,” she states. “The key is trying to look at how we use some of this technology, development and innovation to better assist performance on our projects.”

Extensive opportunity in digitally optimising systems and infrastructure is primarily to do with information, which Dr. Burke says is incredibly powerful. “Traditionally, organisations have separate cost, programming and risks systems and 3D design models. Now, we can amalgamate all of those dimensions to enable us to have integrated data available in real-time.”

For Dr. Burke, the belief is that how we develop infrastructure in the future will include flexible frameworks around technology and systems for infrastructure change and integration.

“Technology and innovation is changing at such a rapid rate,” she says. “We haven’t even conceived what some of that change is going to look like, even in the next five years. We have to develop framework flexible enough to accommodate decisions around advances in technology, systems and network development.

“Information is a very powerful tool to understand the full profile of progress and performance of a project, to facilitate timely and effective decision making.”

Dr. Burke agrees that taking more of an integrated digital approach to infrastructure project delivery – such as through Building Information Modelling (BIM) – is a good indication of where the engineering sector is heading and an avenue that she is keen to explore further.

“BIM is an area of particular interest to me – it can span the whole life of an asset from concept, procurement, design and delivery through to asset operations and maintenance,” she says. “If we can utilise digital assets that span the whole lifecycle, we can leverage off a ‘digital spine’ strategy to achieve better asset development and management.”

Dr. Burke says the United Kingdom has been very successful in developing a digital built BIM strategy and the London Crossrail project provides a good example of the digital workflows process in action.

“Through BIM, the project is reported to have made between 15 to 20 per cent savings in construction delivery and has projected a 20 to 30 per cent savings in operations and maintenance, which is very significant,” she says.

“We’re still at the stage of determining what digital or BIM policy and strategy might be implemented in Australia. It may be difficult to mandate initially across the entire Victorian sector, but we can certainly develop the strategy and look at some projects initially where we can implement BIM on the whole project lifecycle. This will give an opportunity to allow the benefits and effectiveness to be demonstrated.”

Engineers of the future

The Chief Engineer role marks a significant step-change for Victoria. Dr. Burke’s personal passion for progress is fuelling developments, with special attention paid to promoting engineering as an even more attractive prospect for the next generation.

“I’m particularly interested in attracting more people into this sector, into construction and engineering degrees and technical roles because we still need to make a much bigger impact in that space,” she explains. “Then, we need to ensure that our young people going into these technical areas get an opportunity for work experience before they graduate. As a result, they will be more job-ready and have a taste of the industry and the exposure to role options in the workforce.”

A big focus for her is attracting and developing young people – male and female – to the engineer profession.

“Certainly, a big motivation for me is attracting more women into the construction industry. There’s still very low numbers in engineering. For example, only 12 per cent of people in engineering in Australia are women. So, there is a huge potential source of additional resources by attracting more women to the profession, so that when our further infrastructure projects continue to unfold in next five to 10 years we have more resources to support them. “Diverse teams have greater performance outcomes, so we need to harness diversity in gender, age, culture, disability and experience.”

She says supporting training and education providers in the Australian engineering and construction sector is essential to build the skills to deliver the infrastructure required for the future.

Opportunities for apprentices and trainees on infrastructure projects, through initiatives such as the Victorian Government’s Major Projects Skills Guarantee, also provide important support. Even partnerships with TAFEs on major state projects such as the West Gate Tunnel are pushing the agenda in this space.

“There is lots happening in this space, with funding being put towards developing great up-skilling in the TAFE and skills sector around virtual and augmented reality training, for instance,” Dr. Burke asserts.

“It’s very difficult to train a construction worker in a classroom. But at the same time, you can’t put them straight out onto a construction site in an unsafe environment before they have established foundational skills. Using exciting technology like virtual reality can up-skill workers and students, build confidence and grow attraction into this sector.”

New technology in this space, such as virtual reality and drones, are groundbreaking elements used in delivering infrastructure for the future, which Dr. Burke says will help raise the interest of the engineering sector for young people – if we help to promote the exciting opportunities in technology in the sector.

“There is a lot of technology out in the market, and we have to integrate it into education to give young people exposure to it during their schooling,” Dr. Burke asserts. “It’s integrated into some of the training for worksites today – so people are getting exposure to this kind of technology when they get out into the industry – so why not assimilate it into earlier education?”

Although challenges exist for raising the profile of the engineering profession and promoting it as an attractive vocation, Dr. Burke says there are many positive steps being made.

“There are great initiatives in action like the re-ignition of tech schools and maker labs across Victoria, so young people get exposure to exploring technology and designing and tinkering in school,” she says. “My earlier secondary school did not have physics available to girls, and so I moved to another school so I could study science. I recently visited my old school and they now have their own tech lab on site, their own tinker spaces and development projects across the school – it’s amazing. It would be fantastic if this could permeate across all schools and TAFEs so young students have access to these exciting and inspiring resources.”

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