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T44 The Role of the Engineer as a Specialist or a Generalist

Discuss whether Civil Engineers of the future should be a specialist or a generalist. Discuss
the advantages and disadvantages of both avenues and make reference to current trends.
Explain which in your opinion, is the best way to enhance the future role of the Civil Engineer
in society.

Define specialist/generalist

Describe the past and present situation

Benefits of specialisation to the: Individual


Benefits of generalisation to the:

Training for CPR, does it favour generalisation?

Individual should be weighted towards specialisation or generalisation, not try to split

50/50, but should not be 100% one way or the other.

Other professions only specialise after qualification.

Teamwork must play an important role with a generalist co-ordinating specialists.

Specialists must have appreciation of the other aspects of Civil Engineering as a project
will involve more than one specialism.

Are specialists less likely to adopt new and innovative methods as they seek to protect
the importance of their own field.

As an engineer moves into senior management and is involved in a number of projects at

any one time it may be of benefit to be more of a generalist.


According to the ICE, Chartered Engineers are expected to be creative, innovative, to set
standards, manage independent teams and have the potential to manage disciplines outside
their own specialist area. Above all, they should be able to exercise professional judgement.
On the other hand, the ICE defines incorporated Engineers as skilled at delivering high
quality services in accordance with industry codes of practice and standards, able to manage
teams within their own field and within a management team, and able to exercise independent
technical judgement within their specialist field.
Compare through definitions, characteristics and examples of specialist and generalist in
relation to civil engineering.

Specialist an engineer whose primary field of activity focuses on a technical aspect of a
specific area of civil engineering
Specialist highly knowledgeable within their field (often very specific), valuable contribution
can be made when the project requires their particular field input, can develop new
techniques, news details of field intimately, can be limited in employ (tend to be freelance
consultants or work through research bodies / universities), dispensable once area of work is
Specialists are people who are particularly interested in, or good at an occupation, interest, or
field of study. They may well have mastered more than one speciality, but they have not yet
integrated them.
The scope, scale and complexity of the problems specialists attempt to solve are bounded by
their specialities. Specialists will generally not attempt to tackle problems which fall outside of
their specialisation.
An engineer with particular skill and expertise in a specific field of Civil Engineering.
Generally this is taken to mean a technical specialist, but it could also be a specialist at
writing contracts or dispute resolution. The role of a specialist is generally associated with the
details of a problem whereas a generalist is more likely to make the larger scale fundamental
decisions associated with a scheme.

Generalist an engineer whose field of activity involves the various components of the civil
engineering profession not limited to a specific range i.e. senior management, project
managers, graduates.
Generalist flexible in the work undertaken, wide range of knowledge and skills applicable to
a variety of tasks, can provide a look at the big picture for a scheme and understands where a
specialists knowledge fits in.
A generalist is somebody who has knowledge, skills or interests in a variety of fields. They
have not only mastered, but also integrated more than one speciality. They act as general
problem solvers. The mastery and integration of more than one speciality yields a more
generalised ability to solve problems. This means that generalists can take on problems that
are ordinarily of larger scope, scale and complexity than those addressed by specialists.
Generalists continually seek to advance a practice or speciality area, not simply adhere to the
current view of accepted practice. Generalists are looking for the ways in which things fit
together they have already mastered the various arts of taking them apart.

A generalist will knowingly tackle problems that will or could involve specialities beyond those
which have already been mastered.

Generalists and specialists working together:

Generalists need to recognise their limitations of knowledge and call upon the assistance of
Specialists need to effectively and honestly market new technology / methodology to nonspecialist decision makers i.e. highlight benefits and disadvantages.
Specialists need to be flexible and adaptable to fit the project requirements.
Generalists who understand aspects of the entire project should manage the specialists.

What are the driving forces of the future that may influence the role of
the civil engineer?
Information Technology The impact of IT is huge and is likely to increase. Tasks that would
once have been performed longhand by an experienced specialist engineer, can now be
completed quicker and arguably to the same or better standard by any reasonably intelligent
engineer with a good appreciation of the design considerations.
Examples of which are;
setting out specialist work simplified by total station,
dynamic analysis of structure calculated by FE program.
Profitability An Engineer who is flexible enough to work on projects of differing nature is
arguably more employable than a specialist unless there is sufficient work in the particular
Appreciation / Co-ordination of Multiple Disciplines Engineers who can demonstrate
knowledge and understanding of disciplines other than their primary area of expertise will be
able to better co-ordinate with other disciplines. An Engineer with expertise in a wide range of
fields would be well equipped to produce a design which is cost effective and less likely to
yield problems due to poor co-ordination. It could be argued that any Engineer whose area of
expertise interfaces with other disciplines from one project to the next will eventually learn
from experience in any event.
Employment Issues The days of the job for life are long gone. Employer and Employee
loyalty has been eroded by redundancies in the recessions of the early 90s and the increase
in short term contracts. In order to keep as many job opportunities available as possible it is a
benefit to have more than one field of expertise.

Projects are becoming larger and more complex requiring many skills and disciplines, and not
just engineering i.e. financial, legal, environmental, social, sustainability. Communication and
integration across the disciplines is therefore essential.
Increase in cost and time constraints will require new management techniques. Greater
emphasis on a lean approach to engineering will require more effective programming,
efficient design and buildability.
Civil engineering organisations are growing and mergers are becoming more common as
larger companies seek to fill gaps in their portfolio e.g. contractors buying up SI companies.

Civil Engineers require a variety of skills, in order to succeed. The nature of the industry,
means that both Specialists and Generalists will be required in the future, as they are now.
Strong management by Generalists is essential to the success of a scheme, as is the
Specialist technical input required. The two must communicate with each other effectively.
The form of higher/further education means that everyone gets the chance to be a generalist
at a low level, because we get an overview of many different aspects of the profession.
It is no good having an industry where everyone knows a little about everything, but no-one
knows a lot about anything. Specialists should be encouraged to get involved in the wider
picture, so that they can appreciate where their specialisation fits into the overall solution to
problems, however it is important that their specific skills are not lost. The key is having
Generalists who have the ability to be specialists in specific situations.
A Generalist is required to co-ordinate the works of multi-disciplines, overcome clashes and
difficulties. They need to have an understanding of how different systems integrate with each
other. They need to see the critical path, and they need to encourage discipline specialists to
There is a strong future for specialists. Specialists are more able to deal with engineering
challenges which are out of the ordinary and may require a greater understanding of a
particular discipline than a multi-skilled engineer may have. Computers do not programme
Specialisation is necessary for knowledge and skills to develop. Greater knowledge can
improve efficiency and provide a competitive edge. Can also be expensive if the techniques
being used are very close to the boundary of current accepted industry practise.
A wide range of skills is required to manage the concerns of the future. Multi-disciplinary
organisations are becoming for prevalent with joint ventures and alliances being formed to
provide whole package options for large schemes e.g. CTRL.
Communication across the disciplines will be more important and management of a wide
range of inputs will be more essential that expertise in specific areas.
There will always be space for specialists and generalists.