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Aurecon’s Carl Devereux on why the future of infrastructure depends on tech and diversity

This past December, State Highway 1 reopened in the upper South Island – a major milestone following the devastating 2016 Kaik?ura earthquake, which crippled local infrastructure after a magnitude-7.8 earthquake rocked the region. Carl Devereux – New Zealand regional director for Aurecon, a multinational engineering and infrastructure advisory company involved in much of the rebuild, just like it has following the Christchurch earthquakes – says a big reason the road was able to open as quickly as it did, considering how extensively it had been damaged and the ongoing problem of landslides and large aftershocks, was the use of drones to identify problems by surveying hard-to-reach areas much more quickly than humans could. The drones, he says, were able to reach areas blocked by landslides, or otherwise too dangerous for humans to initially go to, and allow engineers to analyse images to get an idea of the work that needed to be done to get things not only operational again, but to help “future-proof” infrastructure for future natural disasters. “There’s so much technology coming out now that’s exciting to harness.”

But it goes far beyond drones. Machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) are also causing massive disruption by taking over much of the less complex, “busy work” that infrastructure engineers often have to do – which Devereux says means engineers need to think more creatively than they might have in the past if they want to have a lengthy career in the industry. “Machine learning is going to be the thing that disrupts us most,” says Devereux. “We need to be an organisation of complex problem solvers, solving the ‘wicked’ problems our clients bring to us.”

Aurecon New Zealand regional director Carl Devereux.

Ok, fair enough. But how can that be done? Devereux says engineers need to be able to think creatively, anticipate future trends (such as autonomous vehicles, continuing large growth in cities like Auckland and Wellington, and the increasing effects of climate change) and to approach problems in new ways – essentially doing the things that machines (as of yet) can’t. Fail to adapt to changing technology and our increasing reliance on it to plan how we live our lives, and Aurecon’s 700-strong New Zealand workforce could look very different in a very short period of time. “We’re really encouraged in seeing design thinking coming into school programmes,” Devereux says.

There’s another thing that Devereaux says will also disrupt the industry, and he says it’s long overdue: diversity. Gender diversity, ethnic diversity, diversity of thought and experience, and more – it’s all critical to bring new thinking and new perspectives into solving problems and building a better, more inclusive society, says Devereaux. “That’s where we’re heading,” he says. “The calibre of the people coming into our industry, coupled with the technology, really excites me. We want to have the best people. Being in the consulting business, people are our resource.”

One way that Devereaux says Aurecon is helping to encourage that diversity: making it an attractive place to work.

Flexible working hours is one thing Devereaux says Aurecon is doing. And he swears it has yielded positive results. “It’s less ‘command and control,’” he says. “To be honest productivity might have gone up.”

By being able to set their own hours, Devereaux says employees have been able to avoid being stuck in traffic and wasting time during morning and evening rush hour commutes. “You lose so much time in a place like Auckland with the commute, especially in the outer suburbs.”

So how does everyone proverbially stay on the same page if they’re all working different hours and/or in different locations? You guessed it: tech. “It’s meant we’ve had to talk more, to collaborate more, to be more organised,” Devereaux says. He adds that all employees are issued a laptop, and tools like Yammer are critical to communications.

Devereaux is quick to point out other things being done, too. Last year, Aurecon introduced its Shared Care policy, which eases the burden on parents, directly addresses the wealth gap experienced by women, and enhances diversity in the workplace by giving parents equal opportunities to achieve work/life balance. Devereaux says the priority is to “create an environment where women and men can balance family and career with the organisation being supportive rather than discriminatory.”

In short, Shared Care provides financial incentives during a child’s first year that support secondary carers stepping into primary carer roles.  “We recognise that supporting secondary carers and fathers to take active roles in the care of children will support women returning to and staying in the workforce, and reduce the career and wealth penalties imposed by career breaks,” Devereaux says.

Shared Care is inclusive of all families – including same-sex families – and is available to birth parents, adoptive and foster parents.

Three scenarios are possible:

1) An Aurecon employee who is the partner of a primary carer, can take over as primary carer and access paid parental leave if their partner returns to their own work.

2) An Aurecon employee receives 150 percent of their salary if they return to Aurecon and their partner is taking over as primary carer but can’t access paid primary carer’s leave through their own employer.

2) Both parents can access Aurecon’s paid parental leave if both are employed with Aurecon.

In addition, Aurecon is contributing to closing the gender wealth gap by paying KiwiSaver or superannuation on both paid and unpaid parental leave. Further flexibility is on offer for parents who might choose to spend longer with a newborn.

Devereux says all these initiatives, as well as a commitment to equal pay for equal work, create an environment of equality in diversity – which, while it should have been a thing from the very beginning, is absolutely the future of the industry. “We recognise the lack of diversity in engineering,” he says. “While momentum to improve gender equality is building, the sector is male-dominated, and Aurecon is working to accelerate change. It is about giving our families a new choice when it comes to considering who takes on childcare responsibilities within their home.”

Aurecon senior process engineer Toby Prader says his family has benefitted from the Shared Care policy. “Our family had more options when deciding who cares for our child.”

Prader stepped into the role of primary carer for daughter Annelise, allowing his wife to go back to work. “I had no idea what to expect – but the experience has left me very grateful that I had the opportunity to spend a month investing in the bond between us,” he says. “I would highly recommend it to other dads.”

Prader says his family didn’t want Annelise in childcare at such a young age. “Childcare should not be only one partner’s job.”

Devereux adds that there’s hope the recent announcement by the Prime Minister that her partner will be the primary caregiver for their child will help drive that message home – and help to normalise the idea. And that, he says, could hopefully create a trickle-down effect that will encourage people to consider careers at Aurecon and in the infrastructure industry. “Our projects are getting bigger all the time,” he says. “The rate of growth is exponential.”

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