Australia’s engineering capability is at risk. Duncan Gibb from Fulton Hogan spoke to Engineering Heroes and suggests that
as an industry we need to be more intentional about improving the capability and capacity of our people.
He urges the engineering industry to consider the culture of the industry and suggests that collaboration is key in improving how to deal with risks.
Duncan enjoyed maths and science growing up, but he especially loved being outdoors. So, when it came time to select his university course he selected… surveying. Duncan thought it looked like a fun job being spent outside.
However, his marks surprised everyone, including himself!His life took a very interesting turn while, after finishing high school, he was travelling around the UK on a rugby trip.
Extra discussions during the episode
Future: He believes that the culture of engineering MUST change
we’re going to find a way to balance career and work
Advice: While taking every opportunity you receive, Duncan also urges engineers to seek absolutely clarity around the role that is expected of you
understand what you’re accountable for and responsible for delivering in your role
The Three Gorges Dam
Three Gorges Dam was a life changer for me
Isambard Kingdom Brunel
the attitude that these early day engineers had of just putting your skills to whatever challenge was in front of you, was quite inspirational to me
Duncan was appointed CEO of Fulton Hogan Australia Construction in July 2017 after more than 15 years in senior leadership roles with the company.
With over 35 years’ experience in the Australian and New Zealand construction industry, Duncan’s work has spanned across various infrastructure sectors.
As a leader, Duncan recognises that success is created through motivated and empowered people and he thrives in collaborative environments where relationships are key. He successfully led the $2 billion rebuild of Christchurch infrastructure between 2011 and 2015 after devastating earthquakes and received the prestigious Brunel Medal for civil engineering excellence.
[00:00:16]Mel & Dom: [00:00:16] Did your father know about engineering? Was there a reason why he sort of decided to jump surveying in
[00:00:23]Duncan Gibb: [00:00:23] I was born in Bulawayo Rhodesia and dad was a third generation Rhodesian and he had spent a lot of time surveying and working in the railways and he knew that engineering paid better. And he figured, well, heck I wouldn’t mind a few extra bucks. So that was that.
[00:00:42]Mel & Dom: [00:00:42] I’m hoping you thank your dad for that decision, then.
[00:00:46] Duncan Gibb: [00:00:46] Yeah, absolutely. It’s actually been fantastic. Engineering has suited me down to the ground. I love it.
[00:00:53]Mel & Dom: [00:00:53] what a great way to get started. so what was the very first project that you started off after you graduated engineering?
[00:00:59]Duncan Gibb: [00:00:59] So, I was in Adelaide and joined privately owned company called AW Baulderstone and they were building amongst other jobs at the time in Adelaide, the O-Bahn busway and got involved in that, looking after the construction of bridges and the piling for the track system network.
[00:01:18]it was really good. Enjoyed it. And then I embarked on. A career of moving all over the country, following exciting projects and projects that would give me an opportunity to move forward really.
[00:01:29]Mel & Dom: [00:01:29] So, where are you working now? Can you tell us a bit about the company that you’re CEO of?
[00:01:33]Duncan Gibb: [00:01:33] so because I joined AW Baulderstone and it was a private company. I really enjoyed that family feel and the feeling of not being a number, but being a person. And so, um, after 15 years at Baulderstone, which got taken over by Bilfinger & Berger and the Germans and grew quite a lot, I moved to Thiess where Thiess brothers owned it and then that got bought by Leighton’s. I then ended up in New Zealand and I joined a company there called Fulton Hogan. that was 2004. And I’m still with Fulton Hogan today. So it’s been, it’s been a fun journey but it’s enabled me to work across Australia and New Zealand to get involved in lots of different projects.
[00:02:17] I manages the rebuilding of the infrastructure in Christchurch, after the earthquakes there, which was really rewarding And I also started managing a business and grew up within the business to now be the CEO of the Australian construction business.
[00:02:33]Mel & Dom: [00:02:33] So you’ve really come a long way in Fulton Hogan. so you’re saying that CEO of the construction business. do you find that your engineering background has helped with that? Or is it more the experiences you’ve learned along the way?
[00:02:48] Duncan Gibb: [00:02:48] Well, fundamentally, I think you learn a lot of good, powerful disciplines in engineering, and moving then into project management and applying those skills and disciplines in the field has enabled me to gain a broad understanding of what’s required. but what you need to learn on the side is those other aspects or associated with management, which leaned more to the side of managing people. Even though we’re a construction business, our business is a people business. everything we do is achieved with and through people and for people. So, you know it’s those extra skills around communication and management skills and people skills are really what set me up on top of the engineering degree to be a successful manager and CEO.
[00:03:45]Mel & Dom: [00:03:45] With moving through the ranks. Do you miss the hands on engineering now that you’re looking after more of the management side?
[00:03:52] Duncan Gibb: [00:03:52] That’s a very good question. So if I was to look at the years and my engineering degree that were most interesting and challenging, that would be when I was a project manager on a couple of dam jobs and you were right there in the nitty gritty of making it happen and innovating and finding ways to solve problems designing temporary false work.
[00:04:16] And all of those fundamental application of engineering principles, they were the fun days. I must admit. Even though I enjoy my job and I think that’s cause I enjoy interacting with people and relationship building and that sort of thing, that pure engineering phase as a project manager and project engineer was where the real guts of the engineering fun was in my career.
[00:04:41]Mel & Dom: [00:04:41] Do you think it’s possible as an engineer to have both? What can you move up through the ranks into sort of management, but still maintain that touch with the actual projects themselves so that you, you get the enjoyment of working on the construction sites.
[00:04:57] Duncan Gibb: [00:04:57] Yeah, will we have a portfolio of just over 40 projects across Australia. And I do spend a fair degree of my time getting out onto projects. I still get to see the engineering challenges, but the reality is it’s not my job to get in and solve the nitty gritty. I can offer advice and encourage and empower people to get on with it.
[00:05:20] And that’s as much in terms of creating satisfaction and enjoyment as the nitty gritty solving of the problems. So you never really get away totally from the nitty gritty, cause that’s our business. You need to understand it, I believe. but you can’t stay in it. If you want to stay in that space, you’re happy to, you could be a project manager til you retire.
I’m working with today, whether it’s the teams in the field, the carpenters and laborers and plant operators, or whether it’s the surveyors.
[00:05:59] Whether it’s the engineers leading and supporting teams on projects, or whether it’s the engineers leading and doing the design work in design offices, or if it’s the client engineers that are actually procuring and specifying and delivering projects, I would contend, unfortunately that the skill level, the capability and capacity across the industry is probably not as good today as it was when I began in the early eighties and that’s due to a whole lot of different reasons. There is a massive amount of work in the market, which is stretching the capacity in terms of numbers of people and the capability of individuals, people are getting promoted outside or above their level of competence, which is not good for them or for the projects they’re working on.
[00:06:52]I believe that the industry and our clients and governments need to have a good look at how we are developing our people in the infrastructure industry. Even the streams at school, which when I was going to school, there was a stream for those people who were going to get into trades and become carpenters and plumbers and electricians.
[00:07:17] And there was a stream of people who aspired to go to university and not everyone’s the same. And that worked. I think we could use a bit of that. There’s the training levels in the field, apprenticeships, governments, and, you know, people used to carry a lot of apprentices and there’s not as many as they used to be.
[00:07:35] There needs to be more, there needs to be more intentional training and development of engineers once they come out of university. When I joined Baulderstone, I was given a career development plan and it mapped out how you would grow from a graduate engineer to a project manager and all the different steps in between and the levels of capability and competency that you needed to grow and develop working with your manager to enable you to grow, but to enable you to do your job.
[00:08:06]so there’s a whole lot of interesting things going on in that space.
[00:08:10]Mel & Dom: [00:08:10] do you have a feeling or a sense or knowledge of what’s caused this big shift?
[00:08:16] Duncan Gibb: [00:08:16] So, what you need to understand is the, the market in Australia is actually quite small. And the governments in New South Wales and Victoria and South Australia to some point have been rolling out massive infrastructure development programs and the number of people that make up the industry is being sorely stretched to deliver that increased volume.
[00:08:43] And it takes time to grow new people. So getting skilled tradespeople is very difficult. You end up needing to Engage as many subcontractors as you can, as well as supplementing your own workforce, you need to rapidly train and develop people in the field. There’s only so many engineers a year come out and a lot of them actually retire as well.
[00:09:10] So there’s a greater need and demand for engineers and construction personnel and designers too, then there is availability in the market. When this has happened in the past, we brought people out from overseas, South Africa, UK, Hong Kong. That’s not possible at the moment.
[00:09:30] Mel & Dom: [00:09:30] Yeah no, I just had that epiphany, as you were saying that it’s like, Oh my God, we can’t do that for the next six, 12…however long months
[00:09:38] Duncan Gibb: [00:09:38] Times have changed, but that drag, that need for more people has grown over the last three to five years. And we just kind of keep up quite frankly. So we need to be more intentional in our organizations, in creating career development pathways for our people, whether it’s for our engineers or our accountants or our communications people, we need to be more focused on upskilling our people rapidly and giving them good training because we need them to grow quickly.
[00:10:10]we’ve put a lot of time and effort into creating our own development frameworks over the last three to four years. And we’ve now aligned them with Institute of Engineers Australia, so that we’re aligning our career development pathways with their chartership program, just so that we can give our people some international and national recognition of their capability. To encourage them to stay in and to learn and to grow. We, as an industry need to be more intentional about improving the capability and capacity of our people.
[00:10:44]Mel & Dom: [00:10:44] you were talking earlier about how there’s a problem with people getting pushed along too quickly. I’m on the consulting side of building services, and I know that we say it on a fairly regular basis where there’s such a shortage that you’ll see HR companies that will jump in and offer ludicrous amounts of additional money to jump people through, even though they don’t have the experience. Is there a way that you think that we can work on that so that the engineers who are coming through in the future are actually getting the training that require rather than ending up in positions that they, I just can’t do purely because someone’s basically put a carrot in front of them that they can’t resist.
[00:11:24] Duncan Gibb: [00:11:24] Yeah, well, that’s the problem. I think if engineers were given a clearer view and visibility of a sustainable pathway in their career they would probably be more cautious and careful about taking on some of the roles that they take on. don’t get me wrong. Some people when they’re given an opportunity that really stretches them, they’ll cope with it and they’ll grow.
[00:11:46] But there’s a number that card and an a breaks level and they leave the industry and then we’re all worse off. so to me, it’s about what is a fully measured and planned program for growing and developing people in a rapid manner both on the client side and on the designers consultants side and in the construction side, how do we rotate people between constructors and clients and designers, so that we’re actually giving them a more broad experience and helping them grow and helping them understand the different facets of engineering that you apply in the different roles?
[00:12:28] I think we’ve been too selfish about protecting our organizations and our people. We need to actually be a bit more generous and trusting and work with each other across the industry to actually grow our people in in a methodical, proper manner, which actually gives us the end result that we’re looking for.
[00:12:51] Rather than selfishly looking at our own organization and putting that ahead of the industry. It’s time to take a different look, I think, at where we’re going and how we’re going to get there.
[00:13:03] Mel & Dom: [00:13:03] Yeah, it’s a, it’s a hard one because when there is such a small pool to work with that, you almost need to make sure that you protect everyone. Cause as you said, you get people who will get pushed forward in their careers too quickly and get burnt out. Or conversely, you just get that brain drain where a lot of our engineers end up going overseas and unfortunately not coming back.
[00:13:24] Duncan Gibb: [00:13:24] Fortunately, they can’t do a lot of that moving overseas at the moment.
[00:13:27] Mel & Dom: [00:13:27] No,
[00:13:30] that’s a silver lining if ever I heard one! but it is one of those situations where there seems to be more people leaving the industry or people who are styling in engineering, you get to a certain point. And then I know quite a few of the engineers that I’ve worked with over time and have ended up in finance or they’ve ended up in management.
[00:13:47]They move out of the building construction industry or your traditional engineering fields altogether.
[00:13:53]You said one of the core problems when I asked you what was the cause of the big shift? It was a great thing, which is the government spending like the infrastructure and building on that. But if, and they’re going to be doing that again by the sounds of it, to get out of the situation we’re in, but what can we do to help this , it’s not just about, career paths for people.
[00:14:13] What else can we do?
[00:14:15]Duncan Gibb: [00:14:15] The other thing we need to work on is the culture of our industry. we need to understand that In the past, this has been a very male dominated culture, and the reality is that macho, butch, I’ll work, six, seven days a week, 12, 14 hours a day.
[00:14:32]You know, that doesn’t cut it anymore. we need to move forward. We need to diversify the engineer ing capability we need to bring in more women into construction. We need to make use of immigrants and their skillset. Everything we can to change the culture and to be able to attract people to our industry.
[00:14:54]the other big change, I think that we need to make is to recognize that historically Construction contractors and designers and clients have got very opposing positions. And it’s all about managing risks. What we do is we manage risk. Historically clients have liked to pass on as much risk as they can to contractors.
[00:15:21] Who then want to pass off as much risk they can under designers and their only fallback is insurance, which is not a good solution. And I’ve got to say that the insurance industry’s a very difficult place at the moment, too. So that normal contractual model and environment that we’ve had, which is very combatitive, needs to change. We need to become more collaborative and governments and infrastructure delivery organizations, whether it’s the transport for New South Wales or, the crew down in Victoria and South Australia too. And they are looking at more collaborative ways of working together that will harness the skills that we have into delivering outcomes. Instead of harnessing the skills and effort we have into protecting our commercial and contractual positions which is a huge time waster.
[00:16:13]if we could work on the more collaborative forms of commercial arrangement within timelines that are actually practical and to work together, to manage risks, we can actually get by with a lesser number of people, and we can focus their time and effort on actually delivering outcomes rather than all the commercial fighting and, the other stuff that supports the legal fraternity.
[00:16:38]I think if we’re heading down that pathway, we’re going to be able to deliver more. We’re going to be able to be intentional about growing our people’s capability and do that together. Clients, consultants, constructors. If we’re working together to do that, we’re going to achieve a much better outcome for ourselves, for the clients and ultimately who’s the end client. It’s the community, it’s the communities who are needing this infrastructure. It’s them, that’s paying for it through taxes and the like, you know, we need to be more cognizant of who the client is and working collaboratively together to provide the best outcome for the community that ultimately is paying for and using these infrastructure resources.
[00:17:22]Mel & Dom: [00:17:22] That’s a really good point, actually, and at the risk of I know this is an engineering podcast, so I’m assuming there’s probably not a lot of lawyers listening to this… Is it the law firms that are causing a lot of the problems in regards to all the, a lot of the, the contractual obligations are getting so convoluted word, but yeah, it’s almost as I, this so busy protecting the company, which is what they’re hired for.
[00:17:48] So it’s completely understandable, but to the point where you spend so much time, Trying to get back to the middle ground
[00:17:55]Duncan Gibb: [00:17:55] and it’s more around the clients who are doing their best to protect the government by continuously modifying contracts whenever they see a potential loophole or, you know, it’s just, it’s tightening it up to manage risk for the clients, but it’s pushing more risk back on contractors and then pushing more risk on designers.
[00:18:17]You know, once you get more collaborative and you start working together, you don’t need such rigid commercial frameworks. Because you’re actually aligning everyone’s in goals so that they’re all working towards achieving this outcome. And if you’ve got a, an equitable share of pain and gain so that you’re sharing the risk to best manage it, you’re then sharing any upside or downside because that’s appropriate because you’re working together.
[00:18:45]then you get a better outcome and you don’t need these crazily, modified commercial conditions.
[00:18:53]Mel & Dom: [00:18:53] Yeah, it kills the industry insofar as I know that we have one just recently, that was for, it was a $1,500 design, we were assisting a builder with a design component for a connection. And the contract we got was a 92 page contract that was going to cost us over $3,000 to have our solicitors review it.
[00:19:11]and I understand exactly where the builders were coming from because they have to protect their company as well. But I think if there’s any lawyers listening out there, if you can lighten up on the contracts at the front end, I think we’ll get things done a little bit quicker as well.
[00:19:23] Duncan Gibb: [00:19:23] Absolutely. but we can’t blame everything on lawyers now
[00:19:26]Mel & Dom: [00:19:26] so what are your thoughts on the future of engineering?
[00:19:29]Duncan Gibb: [00:19:29] I’m excited by the future. my kids tell me on the eternal optimist, which is great.I see a future in which we’ve actually addressed the cultural issues. I got rid of the six, seven day working weeks and the 12 to 15 hour days, which I grew up with. I missed the first 20 years of my kids’ lives. Wasn’t until I had to do a speech from my oldest lad at his 21st and he asked me to talk about all the great things we did together growing up. And there was one boy scout camp. I went up with him on, and I realized that this was wrong. And that was the time that I said no more. We’re going to do five day weeks, and we’re going to find a way to balance career and work and you can do it.
[00:20:13] So I think that we need to get clients and designers and constructors working to time schedules that allow a balance of life. I mean, some of these drop dead dates that they give for political reasons, which drives ridiculous, double shifting and all sorts of crazy behavior. It’s just not conducive to a sustainable industry and we need to look at that and I think we can, and I think we are heading down that track, which is great.
[00:20:38] That doesn’t mean that we don’t work hard. It just means that we work hard, putting our efforts into, into delivering solutions for the community and can have a full and exciting life as well. I think it’s absolutely achievable and we’re on the way there.
[00:20:53] Mel & Dom: [00:20:53] Yeah, it’s a very rosy future that you paint. And I am also an optimist. So I am going to agree wholeheartedly that we will get there. I think we are getting there, which is good as well. Cause I can remember even when I started my career, it was very much you’d say to people… I worked Saturday and Sunday and it was almost like a badge of honor.
[00:21:11] Whereas people now come to you and go, why look, what are you? Obviously, your company is not set up properly. If they’re making you work late nights and weekends. I would often think that you’re, you’re very unorganized. If you’re have to work that much, you can’t manage your time. So I think that mentality is shifting and it’s good to see fingers crossed that happens sooner rather than later.
[00:21:32]But what would you say to people just starting out in engineering?
[00:21:36]Duncan Gibb: [00:21:36] I try and look at things in a simple sort of way. I think if you’re starting any job, but as an engineer, talk to the team that you’re working with, talk to the manager that you report to. Make sure you have clarity over what your role is. Get a good, clear position description, understand what you’re accountable for and responsible for delivering in your role.
[00:22:00] Talk to them about developing a roadmap, which will enable them to build their career and to gain greater capability in a manner that improves their career, but also improves the way the business can perform. And then I would say, take control of your career. Don’t rely on someone else to drive your career.
[00:22:19] It’s yours and you need to own it. And you need to, as you do with any project, sit down and put a plan in front of you and start working towards it. Hit your milestones and keep moving forward. Take every opportunity that you see presented for you and be prepared to take some risks, but have fun on the way.
[00:22:39]people nowadays don’t seem to want to travel cause they want to be at home or near their local pub or near their friends. My wife and I counted when we moved back to Brisbane, about three years ago, we’d had 31 moves with our family and our kids are drawn up along the way and gone to uni and left.
[00:22:57]it’s good to move around. It’s good to take risks, experience new things. and just take hold of any opportunity that you see in front of you to progress your career.
[00:23:06]Mel & Dom: [00:23:06] Yeah, absolutely. I don’t think we’ve had that, what you were saying at the beginning there, where you say, when you started job, get a clear position description. That’s actually really great advice.
[00:23:17] Duncan Gibb: [00:23:17] Unfortunately, we don’t do it well, we just assumed that you say all you’re site engineer now go and look after this, that and the other. That’s actually not good enough. You know, you can’t just throw people out there without giving them clarity over what you expect from them. And then as a manager have regular conversations with your people.
[00:23:40] Don’t have a once a year performance conversation. every couple of months or three months, sit down intentionally and go, this, this is what we agreed to do. This is your position description. How are you going against that? Do you need some training somewhere? It takes about an hour. And yet you do that three or four times a year, and everyone knows where they’re going and you achieve so much more.
[00:24:00]Mel & Dom: [00:24:00] Yeah, it’s very true, and it’s only going make life easier for the engineer, but makes life easier for the whole company as well if you’re all sort of heading in the same direction, you know exactly what you’re all trying to achieve and the goals that you’re going for. So that everyone’s sort of rowing the boat in the same direction,
[00:24:16]Duncan Gibb: [00:24:16] Absolutely.
[00:24:16]Mel & Dom: [00:24:16] just to wrap things up. Is there a piece of engineering that impresses you.
[00:24:20]Duncan Gibb: [00:24:20] Oh look, the most memorable piece of raw engineering that I saw being built was where, uh, must be 15 years ago. Now, maybe not that long, probably is though. I went to see the Three Gorges Dam under construction in China and the structure. Massive. And the hydraulics of these ship lifts that a ship comes into this big concrete vessel effectively and gets lifted up 300 meters in the air.
[00:24:51] And then they open these Gates and it sails on and you’ve got these other set of locks on the side for vessels up to two or three. Massive, absolutely massive. But then when you had a look at the highways that they had to build to get there. Yeah. With kilometer after kilometer of tunnel, relocating three or 4 million people who were in the inundation zone into a new cities that they built at the edge of the dam, the scale of what people do overseas is enormous compared to what we do in Australia.
[00:25:26] And it’s, it’s worthy of just stepping back and reflecting on some of the other engineering feats out there at the moment. so to see where we fit in the world, but you know what, even though what we build and design is smaller scale, we still deliver some really fantastic standards of infrastructure.
[00:25:45]And that’s good. So Three Gorges Dam was a life changer for me.
[00:25:50]Mel & Dom: [00:25:50] it’s amazing that dam absolutely amazing. It’s huge. We had look at it when we Googled it. Just the fact that as you were saying, they had to displace communities.
[00:25:58] Like it wasn’t just a dam here. There was such a huge amount of impact that came with it
[00:26:05] Duncan Gibb: [00:26:05] a bought a fleet of Caterpillar trucks, one of each different size and Caterpillar dozers and excavators. They bought all this whole fleet of kit. Then they pulled them apart, tooled up factories and made their own. It was just incredible. It was mind boggling.
[00:26:24]Mel & Dom: [00:26:24] do you have an engineer that you admire?
[00:26:26]Duncan Gibb: [00:26:26] Yeah. I was thinking about this. in 2015, I was asked by the Institution of Engineer’s UK to be the 10th International Brunel lecture and do a series of 30 odd lectures across the world at their different chapters in different countries. And. I was thinking, well, who’s this Brunel character. So I did a bit of research on Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
[00:26:48]This is a guy in the 1800’s who at the age of 20 was working on the first tunnel under the Thames. He designed and constructed other tunnels, bridges. He opened up and design and then constructed railways that opened up the UK. He then designed and built the first steel hold, steam power transit landing ship.
[00:27:10] You know, the attitude that these early days engineers had of just putting your skills to whatever challenge was in front of you was quite inspirational to me. And I suppose it’s inspired me to make sure I’m doing the best that I can, but more importantly, it’s inspired me to challenge the young engineers that we’ve got working with us to actuallybe the best that they can be.
[00:27:34] And to, to go a bit further than they might have thought was the easy option and, and to really put some effort in to be a good engineer. I really enjoy the profession, it’s been great. And guys like Brunel, we don’t know what they did anymore. And we become specialists instead of the broader scale, have a go at anything type engineer, which they were, which is pretty astounding.
[00:28:01]Mel & Dom: [00:28:01] In that industrial revolution, I think it was the third industrial revolution, it just so much was churning through and being created and innovated in those times. And you think, okay, well that was a great time and it’s in the past, but we’re actually now in the fourth industrial revolution where this is the opportunity for engineers of today to step into those shoes and just push those limits that Brunel just naturally pushed. So I think that’s a great way to end this episode because I just think they’re big shoes to fill, but I think this generation that’s coming up can more than surpass that challenge.
[00:28:41] Duncan Gibb: [00:28:41] Absolutely
[00:28:42]Mel & Dom: [00:28:42] Thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been wonderful. Thanks for joining us. It was great speaking with you.
[00:28:46] Duncan Gibb: [00:28:46] No problem. Talk to you again sometime.
Mel & Dom: And thank you for listening to Engineering Heroes as we present the new dawn of engineering challenges for Engineers Australia. Your hosts have been Melanie and Dominic De Gioia.
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