Thoughts for Young Geotech Engineers

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Published 16 December 2020
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Thoughts for Young Geotech Engineers

The editors of Geotechnics News have initiated a regular feature seeking career reflections from  geotechnical practitioners that may assist undergraduate and graduates in managing their professional development and identify their long-term goals. 

Tonkin + Taylor’s Peter Millar is a geotechnical professional with over 40 years’ experience. Peter’s career includes periods of research, design and construction of land development, buildings and major infrastructure projects in New Zealand and SE Asia, governance boards of Alliances and senior management.

I attended a retirement function for a CEO recently where many of the senior management of constructors, consultants and major infrastructure clients were present. The collective experience in the room was massive, being responsible for much of the construction of recent buildings, transport systems and infrastructure projects in NZ. These engineers had steered the industry through some tough times and periods of extraordinary development and they were immensely enthusiastic about having had the opportunity to be part of NZ’s development. 

Why did they choose engineering and elect to spend a major part of their career in NZ? Why have majority of them worked well beyond the average retirement age and continue to give services to the engineering sector?

It brings to mind the old saying that “geologists never retire they just become old fossils”.

Most of us would respond that their love for engineering is much more than a job – it is a journey, a service, a life choice and mostly a pleasure. We look forward to each day with a purpose, seeking to make a difference. This does not mean at the expense of all else, particularly family and recreation, but it is a strong driver. The engineering community in which we operate is also a major factor. The profession is mostly populated by like-minded people who seek to deliver good work, make a positive contribution to society, and provide opportunities for others. 

Reflecting back, I would have to admit many of the defining moments in my career happened in spite of me, or through the actions of others. But I would like to think that I was selected on more than chance. There were occasions when I needed to make choices where I had to back myself to succeed and I would like to share a few. 

Like many others at this time I joined the Ministry of Works and on completion of my masters’ degree, I made the obligatory transfer to head office in Wellington. I was immersed, together with a large cohort of young engineers, in design roles for projects throughout NZ. 

While initially located in the research and development team, I took opportunities to meet and get exposure to the work being undertaken by other divisions. It was mandatory to make at least two training transfers occurring every 18 months for the graduates, so it was useful to identify and promote yourself to seniors that could recommend your next shift. The transfer system ensured engineers got a range of experience to broaden their skills rather than being siloed early. They were then able to identify their career paths and could ultimately either take responsibility for management of diverse teams or dedicate themselves to a technical specialist role. 

This 18-month transfer requirement was most useful in encouraging you to regularly review your progress, reflect on performances, and take personal responsibility for planning your own future.

So my early journey progressed from a Rock Mechanics postgraduate degree, into concrete technology and the early condition assessment of dams throughout NZ, investigations and design of the tunnels and caverns for the Rangipo Underground Power Station, followed by a transfer to Turangi to help build this amazing project. 

This next formative lesson was having a role in building structures you have designed; my elegant thin arch lining and rock anchors system for supporting the powerhouse cavern had been skilfully designed using the state-of-the-art finite element software with stresses defined to the third decimal point. However, I had never heard of overbreak and the rock structure simply refused to comply with the 3D geological model we had carefully produced. It was in colour, so it should have been true. 

Then there were the grizzly tunnellers who were experienced who could “listen” to the ground and observe the performance of the steel sets and lathing to gauge the adequacy of support. It was a big step for this young engineer fresh from the “bullshit” office (Wellington) to attempt to convince them to trust this new approach that challenged their conventional methods. I quickly had to broaden my vision, learn from their concerns, and progressively gain their confidence. 

I also had to consider sensitivity to changes in ground conditions, appreciate the impacts of sequencing, constructability and safety in design. Working closely with the constructors ensured overall best results for project outcomes and built some great relationships. It certainly changed my appreciation of working in teams. 

I had greatly benefited from the opportunity to be involved throughout the investigation, design and build stages of such a challenging project. It enabled me to understand the perspective of other disciplines, but it also allowed me to identify that my primary interest was probably in design. 

I applied for the lead role for the Geotechnical Section at Central Laboratories and over the next eight years I was able to apply both my practical skills and design experience to identify opportunities to add value to projects. As well as technical expertise, I also needed to develop marketing and commercial skills to convince proposed budget holders to invest in the testing, instrumentation and design services we could provide. The economy was growing and the group expanded rapidly. 

We worked throughout NZ with projects ranging from large scale rock shear testing for the foundations at Clyde Dam, trial load tests for long wall mining at Huntly, seismic refraction testing for oil exploration in Taranaki, development of downhole pressuremeter and geophysical testing equipment, dynamic compaction trials for Ohaaki power station, together with research on soft rocks, basecourse pavement materials and investigating vibration effects of construction on historic structures. 

The critical differences between pure research and these operational research projects was that you generally only get one chance to get a result and it needs to be completed on time. It really focuses the approach.

Partial commercialisation of the Ministry of Works and Development encouraged me to consider a change into the private consulting industry and join the geotechnical team at Tonkin + Taylor. My timing may not have been optimal as it was just before 1987 financial crash, but I was fortunate as I had specialist skills that were needed for several projects and I was able to apply my marketing experience to help secure some good baseline projects. 

This experience strengthened my resolve to always retain and continue development of the specialist skill that I could offer and I always encourage others to do the same. This has created many opportunities to differentiate ourselves including a number of major projects in Southeast Asia where we have successfully competed with international consultancies. 

I recall one project where we invested in transporting and demonstrating our newly developed pavement testing technology to the client. I managed to sort out an electronics issue with minutes to spare, complete the trial and was greeted on return to our office with the signed contract. There have been many similar experiences. 

I have since had positions of responsibility in the company including periods as Geotechnical Group Manager and Managing Director of the Tonkin + Taylor Group, but ensured I retained an element of technical projects and have subsequently returned to the operations team. 

I focus on a mix of Governance roles on Alliance projects and provide technical direction for both land development and foundations of multistorey structures, while also assisting in business development and externally undertaking dispute resolution roles. A particular recent highlight has been multiple roles throughout the life of the Western Ring Route (Waterview tunnel) project where I initially managed the T+T team working on the specimen design, provided expert witness to the Board of Inquiry, then was geotechnical design lead for the ipAA phase before serving as a Board member for the project construction phase then transitioning to the Maintenance Alliance Board. Currently I am on the Boards of the CRL (Central Rail Loop), Wynyard Edge (America’s Cup), Mt Messenger and Piritahi housing alliance projects. I feel privileged to be part of these enthusiastic teams who are keen to make a difference to our society, and where I can also provide advice and offer review.  

The diverse range of projects I have worked on has required me to develop strong relationships with clients, developers, government agencies, architects, other design engineers and constructors. These relationships are dependent on trust, fairness and respect for what each can bring. 

From my experience, the likelihood of successful outcomes is high when contracts are fair to all parties, do not seek to assign risk to parties that cannot reasonably manage them, and promote good relationships. 

Geotechnical engineers are mostly involved during the early stages of projects. Our projects often present high risks, we have limited ability to test and have limited data. The materials which we operate with are variable and often perverse. Our clients are highly reliant us applying good judgement, supported by modelling and analysis. There will also be pressures to limit costs. We will not always get it right so when issues occur it is critically important that they are resolved quickly and risks to subsequent phases are also addressed. A first response to focus on blame and cost allocation is not constructive and inevitably leads to escalation, so wherever possible rapid response to mitigate and remediate is advised. This is where investment in good relations and trust pays dividends. 

A few final reflections

Would I have chosen a different career: No

Would I have been wealthier if I had selected a different career: Probably

Would I have worked less hours: Yes

Do I think I have made a positive difference to my community: Yes

Do I believe you, the next generation of engineers will outperform us: Of course. 30 years ago some enlightened people took a deep breath and decided to give the current group of leaders a chance to demonstrate their potential; make sure you take your opportunities. 

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ISSN 0111-6851