[Part 2] Interview: ACE's Chief Executive Hannah Vickers

Posted by Ananya Kripalani on October 23, 2019

Interview with Hannah Vickers

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Hannah Vickers was appointed chief executive of the Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE) in June last year. A civil engineer by profession, Hannah joined from the Institution of Civil Engineers where she led the policy and public affairs team, and prior to that she acted as an adviser to Ministers at HM Treasury on infrastructure delivery policy. I recently caught up with Hannah to get her take on the current challenges and opportunities facing the industry - below is the second part of the unofficial transcript of our conversation. If you missed part one, you can read it here.

Q4. Speaking about long-term efforts, how can consulting engineering firms continue to turn in good quarters and avoid being commoditised, given the level of pressure when it comes to margins, cash-flow, as you touched on, business models and importantly meeting their value proposition for clients? What advice can you give, since there is so much on the table, what do you believe they should be prioritising?

"You become commoditised when you lose sight of where you add value. 

If you can just become dumbed-down to a stage where you are replaced by an automated design, then you are in the client's eyes perhaps never adding value. 

I don’t think that’s where we are headed, but I would say my advice to firms is actually, you really need to get into that understanding of where you add value. Because each firm will add a different bit of value to a different client set which is obviously why some relationships with clients work out and others don’t. I think actually it’s a period of self-reflection for businesses to unpick that and rather than think about what do we currently do for our clients, consider what do they get from this? What are the benefits? Where do we actually affect change on? 


"You become commoditised when you lose sight of where you add value."


We are now seeing the pressures and challenges being faced by clients rapidly increasing, we’ve got a growing population and we’ve just had the net zero commitments. All of that is going to be putting more and more pressure on clients with their existing asset base, and when they are building or commissioning new projects, then we can help them deliver on those challenges - but probably only if we understand where we add value and take our view away from the design work in these standards, and more so into the design work that we deliver ‘has this impact’ and actually ‘we are world class in our particular firm at delivering design work that will meet zero targets’. I think that’s the sort of thing that firms need to understand. And I think its fine actually that we have that diversification within the industry with firms that add different bits of value to the client. 

But it’s that piece, knowing where you add value and actually really getting behind that and using that almost as your guiding light to target your investment into the right people and the right technology to deliver on that vision. I think that’s the piece that we need to get into really."

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Q5. A lot of what we’ve discussed is looking outward but if we take a more inward look, how can Consulting Engineering firms do more to create a culture to educate, empower and prepare their people with the technology and mind-set that is required for the long-term? Is there best practice or particularly exciting developments you are seeing that companies would benefit from adopting?

"This is a really interesting area and I referred to earlier some of our research on the future of consultancy - we’ve commissioned some of that from our emerging professional network to give us a view on what they expect on their work place in the future. 

What’s come out very strongly is actually that clarity around the values and the mission of an individual firm and how important that is to creating the right culture and certainly to attracting and retaining the right staff and the right quality of staff. They were saying actually for the generations that are coming through now, having clarity on that is perhaps more important to them then a huge salary increase. So to weigh that up for firms, they need to be absolutely clear on what it is they’re marketing and how they attract the right people in, I think is going to be hugely important going forward. 

The disruption we’ve discussed also starts to play into what we need in terms of how we train and retrain people. If you talk about individual skills, clearly we are going to have a different skills profile in the businesses of the future and there’s probably a couple of aspects to that. There’s a piece around how do we retrain people - we are not particularly good at that. Historically we would have said, you started as a civil engineer and you would have been a civil engineer for life, perhaps done the same CPD or a very similar CPD. Whereas now you might qualify as a civil engineer then you might move across and become a data scientist. There’s all sorts of retraining, or even if it’s not a move between the professions, a type of broadening out of what you need to understand across the disciplines - that’s going to be really important. Again there are some real challenges there for the professional bodies in meeting that. 


"There’s got to be a focus around being more inclusive and allowing different routes into the professions without compromising on the quality."


And the second point is the routes into the profession. Again at the moment, because we self-regulate and it's part of our regulatory system, quite a robust series of qualifications and assessments are required to get through to become a chartered engineer or a chartered environmentalist. I think there’s got to be a focus around being more inclusive and allowing different routes into the professions without compromising on the quality and we haven’t got that right yet, absolutely haven’t got that right with the professional bodies. It’s still incredibly hard, unless you are academically gifted there is very limited variation to the process to become a chartered engineer or environmental professional. 

Lastly something we’re quite passionate about is apprenticeships as a way of giving a different route in or retraining because you can do that without having to go back to university - so hugely attractive if you are part way through your career and you want to take a slightly different direction. So we’ve worked with the technical apprenticeship consortium which is actually a business led apprenticeship firm and brings together the businesses to scope out new apprenticeships, to work with course providers to make sure they are getting the right steer, providing the right quality of students. I think that sort of thing is where I am seeing best practice at the moment, because it’s about businesses rolling up their sleeves and getting stuck in and saying this is what we want from our education system."

Q6. One thing that really stands out is the fact that you really see Consulting and Engineering firms as having huge and exciting opportunities ahead of them to shape the future of their industry, what is the ACE’s vision of the future for their members?

"We’ve recently published our view on this but to summarise...

For us it’s about how firms can embrace data and technology. I see those as tools, they’re not going to replace us, they are not going to replace our expertise and our insight. But they are different tools we might not have used before when we’re carrying out our design work or our consultancy work. The best will take advantage of data and technology and use that to enhance their offering, enhance their productivity and the value that they bring to clients. 


"It’s really that the best will take advantage of that (data and technology) and use that to enhance their offering, enhance their productivity and the value that they bring to clients."


In terms of how I would like the industry to be viewed, well half of it is doing the work and the other half is being recognised for that. I think there’s enough here to make sure that we are recognised and rewarded for the value that we add and in turn that creates a virtuous circle, you can make yourself better by investing in these new tools, so I think that’s where I’d like us to get to as an industry. We are completely capable of delivering world-class, first rate value but at the moment we are positioned as a second tier commodity so we need to break that, but we need to be showing that we’re working at being brought back up and coming into client side work and client side advice because of the value we add. That’s where I’d like us to get to."

Missed part one of the interview? Read it here.

Read next: [Part 3] Interview: ACE's Chief Executive Hannah Vickers

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