Here’s how winning an Engineers Australia Excellence Award paved the way for this engineer’s career progression.
Back in 2016, highway engineer Stuart Cook had just landed a role most engineers his age could only dream of.
At 29, with only 10 years of industry experience, the BG&E Queensland Transport Lead found himself in the role of design manager for the Ipswich Motorway Upgrade Project Stage 1, Rocklea to Darra. This involved leading a team of up to 80 in the design of a 3 km section to the busy motorway, including an expansion from four to six lanes, seven new bridges and a new 1.5 km local connection road.
“It was quite a large, complex project,” Cook said. “Typically, that’s a job most engineers won’t take on until they’ve had at least double the years of experience I had.”
Despite initially suffering imposter syndrome, Cook’s hard work on the project paid off, and with the support of an outstanding team, he clinched the Engineer’s Australia’s Young Engineer of the Year award in 2018.
Ever since, Cook has parlayed this national recognition, as well as other accolades including Consult Australia’s Future Leader award and Roads Australia Fellowship, to his advantage.
“It took me from a young project delivery guy who got lucky, to winning work on a much larger scale,” he said.
This includes the $164 million Smithfield Bypass project in Cairns and the new 45 km Coomera Connector between Loganholme and Nerang, otherwise known as the “Second M1”, designed to improve safety and reduce congestion on the existing motorway.
“It’s my role to develop and deliver the preliminary and detailed design for that job, interface with the Queensland Government as well as other authorities, and keep the team happy,” he said.
“Our team when I ran the Rocklea to Darra project was eight. Now we’re sitting at around 50, so the team growth has just exploded.”
Carving a leadership path
Recognition by Engineers Australia as a young engineer to watch also opened up new leadership opportunities for Cook, who was appointed Chair of Roads Australia’s Future Leaders Committee soon after.
“I’ve been able to raise my profile in the industry, which has allowed me to take on positions I probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do otherwise,’ he said.
Chairing a committee on the peak body for roads places Cook as an observer on the organisation’s board, which includes many of the nation’s most senior road transport figures.
“It’s hard as a young engineer to get credibility when a lot of the time they’re asking for 30–40 years experience to be able to play,” he said.
“[After being named Young Engineer of the Year] that barrier fell down for me and all of a sudden I was able to sit at the same table as peers with many more years of experience under their belts.”
Now, through his position at Roads Australia, Cook is determined to pay his leadership knowledge forward.
“We focus on emerging leaders, which we call ‘zero to 10’, and this year, we had our first forum in that space, bringing together 146 young professionals from across the country to seek out what they want for the future of the transport industry,” he said.
A focus on innovation and sustainability
No longer a “starry-eyed youngster”, Cook hopes to move the road design needle forward by advocating for sustainable approaches.
As roads continue to be built, resurfaced, and upgraded, changes to infrastructure and materials are needed to drive the transport sector’s journey to net zero.
Where public money is invested and long asset life is the expectation, that could be somewhat of a challenge.
But in Cook’s mind, a better appreciation of risk — and where it can best be applied — is required to ensure change.
“[When] implementing a sustainable solution, there needs to be recognition that there’s a slight chance an asset may fail,” he said.
Transfer of risk should also be a factor, ensuring that if failure does occur, the engineer who proposed the solution isn’t held accountable.
“It should be seen as part of the learning process as we go through that journey,” he said. “Obviously, there can’t be safety implications, but what risks can we take to see these things roll out?”
As a conduit between younger generations and senior leaders, Cook advocates for a change in perspective whenever he can.
“I’m fortunate to be in a position whereby I do have a line of sight and contact with those senior decision makers and I’m able to give them an external perspective of where those challenges to implementation lie,” he said.
“But if we want sustainability, which is something the younger generation is screaming for, we need to accept there are going to be changes and with that change comes risk, which we need to work out how to manage.”
Show your appreciation
With nominations to Engineers Australia’s new and improved Excellence Awards now open, Cook says putting forward your employees, peers and team mates for consideration is a sign of appreciation.
As Cook’s career progression has demonstrated, it’s also good for business should your nominee go on to win.
“The amount of work I’ve been able to bring in with that award behind is significantly more than without, so if you put a commercial lens on it, it’s a fantastic outcome for any business,” he said.
The new and improved Engineers Australia Excellence Awards are now open for nomination. Learn more about the awards program and how to nominate here.