Engr. Kunle Adebajo is Chairman/CEO of Ove Arup & Partners Nigeria, the foremost Engineering consultancy firm, operating continuously in Nigeria for over 60 years. A past President of the Nigerian Institution of Structural Engineers and past Chairman of the Ikeja Branch of The Nigerian Society of Engineers, Engr. Adebajo has earned a reputation in Nigeria’s engineering circles as being a thorough professional with an unyielding commitment to excellence. Among many other accolades, he is a Role Model on the National Vision 20-20 Youth Empowerment scheme. He shares his path to success and proffers some very useful advice for the young engineer.
I am a Civil/Structural Engineer, a career that started following my graduation from the Department of Civil Engineering, University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology (UWIST) in 1982. In addition to my initial Bachelors’ degree, I possess a Master of Science degree in Structural Steelwork from the Imperial College, University of London. When I look back at how I got into this profession, I remember quite clearly that for all my life I had always wanted to be an engineer. Even from my very early years, I was known in the house as the Mr Fix it. What was not really quite as clear was what branch of engineering I would pursue. What I had in mind was mechanical engineering or aeronautical engineering. I guess I got these from our encyclopaedia!
During my secondary school days, I was very much aware of the need to excel in mathematics and the sciences. I liked maths, I liked physics, but somehow I was not so keen on chemistry and even less so on biology. For this reason, I actually started to have my doubts about going down the engineering line. For my A-levels, I picked maths, physics and economics. I reckoned that that combination gave me the best flexibility, allowing me to also consider accountancy should the need arise. As it happened, I applied for civil engineering and have never looked back ever since. Several people would ask how come I say I am a structural engineer when I graduated as a civil engineer. Civil engineering is very broad and it encompasses numerous sub-disciplines of which structures, public health, highways, Geotechnics, etc. are included. In that regard, it can be considered a very ‘safe’ Engineering discipline to choose as there is bound to be an area of strength for most candidates.
What I should also state at this junction is that anyone thinking of choosing civil engineering or any branch of engineering for that matter, as an easy way out, has a big surprise in store. The engineering course is very comprehensive and demanding. It is not surprising that qualified engineers are frequently highly sought after due to the rigorous nature of their training and their obvious competence in many aspects. For example, banks seek engineers for their numeracy skills as well as their logical thinking.
My civil engineering course spanned over a duration of four years. Of this period, two separate six-months industrial training were included. I was fortunate to spend one of the periods on site with a contractor (John Laing, UK) and the other in the design office of Ove Arup and partners, Cardiff, UK. This gave me a very useful early introduction to what to expect on graduation. I quickly realised that I would rather be a consultant in a design office immersed in the exciting challenges of solving analytical problems. There is however much satisfaction to be gained in any of the chosen directions as long as one applies oneself fully.
A very important part of a young engineers training is to be guided and mentored by more senior experienced engineers. There is no shortcut to gaining experience and an ambitious engineer wishing to make a real success of his or her career must be ready to subject oneself to learning from others. Even now, after over 30 years of working experience, I am continually learning every day with every new project and challenge.
I should say a quick word about whether it is relevant or not for an engineer to pursue a higher degree. Shortly after graduating, I received what I now consider as very wise counsel, from some senior members in the Cardiff office of Ove Arup and partners that I joined. They were unanimous in their view that I should first concentrate on getting good working experience rather than just accumulating university degrees. After three years of working however, I then went to Imperial College for my Master’s degree. By that time, I was able to relate much more closely with what we were being taught. This meant that the benefit of the Master’s degree for me was much greater than it would have been had I just treated it as an extension of my Bachelor’s degree. I would give similar advice to anyone who asks.
As I have been fortunate to be well mentored in my earlier days, I make it my duty that all young Engineers who train under me benefit from my strict insistence on the development of professionalism as well as the development of soft skills, particularly strong communication skills. In the coming years, engineers wishing to be successful will need to have very strong soft skills in addition to the usual technical skills demanded of the profession. Engineers need to communicate well, and be able to present well.
Probably the biggest challenge that I faced as a young engineer was that of poor remuneration. Job satisfaction is not in doubt, but the slow upward curve of remuneration can sometimes disillusion a promising young engineer. My advice is to stick with it as surely financial rewards will also come eventually for those who have diligently sought after good experience and technical expertise.