Plain sailing – or choppy waters ahead?

27 February 2019

There is concern in the UK dam industry that a gradual decline in the number of inspecting engineers will continue to fall to a level that may not be sustainable. Research by Anthea Peters, Craig Goff, David Littlemore and Tracey Williamson provides the most accurate and comprehensive analysis of the current, and possible future, state of inspection panels.

In order to safeguard future reservoir safety, the UK needs to find new ways of increasing the numbers of inspecting engineers (IEs). With many IEs fast approaching retirement age, there is apprehension about whether the replacement rate of new appointees will be sufficient to maintain adequate resources.

Underlying concern about declining numbers within the community of supervising and inspecting panel engineers in the UK, led to the establishment of a working group sanctioned by the Institution of Civil Engineers’ (ICE) Reservoirs Committee. Its aim was to investigate whether this was a legitimate issue, and if so, determine possible causes and solutions.

The committee built upon earlier research that had studied the retirement ambitions of IE panel members, and had intimated that there would be a reasonably steep decline in the current number of IEs due to the effect of forthcoming retirements.

As candidates for IE panels are almost exclusively drawn from supervising panels, the intentions of supervising engineers (SEs) towards career progression are considered to be of direct relevance to the number of IEs in the future. With this in mind, a working group from the Reservoirs Committee invited supervising engineers to take part in an online survey in March 2016.

Of the 134 registered SEs in the UK, 78% responded to the short anonymous questionnaire that sought to find out if there were any barriers stopping SEs from progressing to IE panels. The responses produced, what has been described as, the most accurate and comprehensive snapshot available on the state of SEs and their career aspirations.

Declining numbers

The data showed that nearly 60% of SEs are definitely not considering progressing to IE panels. However, this figure is probably more likely to be 70–75% or higher if the engineers who did not respond fall into the ‘No’ category.

It was found that employer type helped to shape responses. The majority of SEs working within the water companies would not consider applying for an IE panel. The primary reason given for this was that the engineer was content in their role as an SE, while 23% considered they had insufficient technical or construction experience and would not have an opportunity to achieve this experience in their current role.

For consultancies the response was fairly evenly split with around 50% considering application (with a definite yes, or a maybe response) and 50% responding that they would not apply for an IE panel. The majority of respondents who gave a negative response cited that their age was the restriction.

Twenty SEs replied that they would ‘Maybe’ consider applying to an IE panel. The most likely factor that would induce them to submit an application would be a change to the panel structure (with separate construction and inspecting panels).

Within the survey responses there was also an opportunity to add further comments on suggested measures that could be taken to improve the likelihood of an application for an IE panel. These are summarised as:

  • Requesting a change in the requirement for construction supervision experience on a large dam.
  • Suggesting that the All Reservoirs Panel (ARP) be split into a senior construction engineer role and a more limited IE role.
  • Some mechanism to allow a review of experience by a mentor, prior to a formal application.

The survey found that there is almost no appetite among SEs for progression to the Service Reservoirs Panel or the Non-Impounding Reservoirs Panel. While after correlating data regarding the projected retirement date of current IE panel members with career aspirations of SEs, it was found that the reducing numbers of ARP engineers is likely to continue.

From 30 existing ARP engineers in 2018, it is expected that, by 2022, this number will have reduced to 21 (most realistic case) and 30 (best case).

Even if an unrealistic 100% pass rate for interview applications is assumed (the actual historic success rate is ~33%), numbers are still set to decline. Indeed, the working group discovered only two ARP applications (against a predicted five) were received in 2016, with only one being successful. While in 2017 two were received (four were predicted) and two were successful. Since undertaking this research, new statistics for 2018 show a slight improvement on the previous two years regarding applications received. Six applications were received (three were predicted), however only three were successful, with only one out of four new applicants being successful; the other two being re-applicants.

The working group also considered the demand side of the question. Their simplified analysis showed that the industry requires 20 full time equivalent members of the ARP to fulfil the current level of demand for all IE services. However other factors have to be considered. For example, the distribution of work on the panel is not equal, many IEs do not work full time in their role, or do work full time but have a wide portfolio of other responsibilities in the industry. With this in mind, it is considered reasonable to suggest that 30 engineers will be required as a minimum to fulfil the demand equivalent of 20 full time engineers.

In addition, recent changes in legislation will also have an effect. This now brings high-risk, small reservoirs under legislation which means that the total number of reservoirs requiring services by IEs is going to increase in the next few years. Various data analyses suggest that there could be a 23% increase in the number of reservoirs requiring inspections, leading to a greater requirement of 37 engineers - up from 30. This could rise to a 35% increase if the reservoir capacity threshold is lowered further, leading to a requirement of 40 engineers to undertake the work.


To ensure a critical number of qualified engineers is guaranteed to safeguard UK reservoirs, several measures could be taken. Succession planning for the All Reservoir Panel will need further discussion within the industry, along with guidance and steering by the Reservoir Committee. Other possible options could be:

Amend the structure of the IE panels to discontinue the Service Reservoirs and Non-Impounding Reservoirs panels and split ARP into CE and IE panels. The IE panel could be limited to Section 10 Inspections only and would be seen as a stepping stone to CE. The CE panel would be the equivalent of the current ARP.

Establish a formal mentoring programme for SEs to nurture and encourage them towards the ARP.

Develop new specific attributes for the service reservoir panel to encourage a greater number of structural engineers to apply to this panel. This would help reduce the demands on ARP engineers undertaking other reservoir safety works.


The above article was compiled from the original paper written by Anthea Peters, Craig Goff, David Littlemore and Tracey Williamson called Inspecting engineer succession planning – plain sailing or choppy waters? Published in Dams and Reservoirs 28(2): 54-61. ICE Publishing.
IWP&DC would like to thank the British Dams Society and Dams and Reservoirs for their collaboration.

Inspection Craig Goff on inspection duties
Tunnel Inspecting a tunnel

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