Some in the timber engineering industry question why university graduates have limited knowledge in timber engineering. The answer is that the UK culture of education in engineering is embedded in its Victorian beginnings. It is a short period of full-time education to create an academic base, followed by a period of supervised training in the workplace. This model of education has proved very successful and remains so.

For their academic base, most engineers in the UK building construction industry study for a civil engineering degree and gain professional qualification through the Institution of Civil Engineers and/or the Institution of Structural Engineers. To gain a professional post-graduate qualification, it is essential to undergraduate students that they study on an accredited degree, which contains a range of subjects including mathematics, the theory of mechanics, materials science, structural practice (eg the background to codes), engineering practice (eg management studies), project work and options.

Structural engineering is always part of a civil engineering or general engineering curriculum and taught aspects account for around 15-20% of the curriculum. Timber engineering is learnt as part of structural engineering. It is clear that the graduate engineer is unlikely to have gained much specific experience of timber design in their course but neither are they likely to have achieved much experience in the detail design of steel or concrete either.

The approach to undergraduate education has changed and is changing – it is the job of universities to not only provide the minimum technical base but also to give students the enthusiasm and the basic skills to be able to design.

The Institution of Structural Engineers says that “Structural engineering is the discipline that covers areas such as structural analysis and design, structural mechanics, foundation design and properties of materials”. Many think that structural engineering design is about sizing members but this is not design, it is sizing. Design is more complex. It is about choosing an appropriate structural system, co-ordinating it with the architecture and environmental design, choosing appropriate materials and finding appropriate foundation and construction methods. As little as 15% of a structural engineer’s job is about analysis and setting down a satisfactory justification, in numbers, as proof of the design.

Structural design is a very complex, non-linear process. To enable students to understand it we need to encourage them to work on projects throughout their course. We need students seeing and experiencing precedents and, from the very start, we need them learning approximate methods of solution to show them that analysis can be simplified. This gives them a chance to pick up complex design skills and, as the course develops, make sense of the structural and material behaviour.

Specialist timber engineers often wish to recruit engineers experienced in timber design but they will not find this in a typical graduate, who is unlikely to have had more than two days’ actual design in timber tuition at university.

Looking ahead over their lifetime’s work, graduates typically see it as important to establish a breadth of expertise. They are often reluctant to consider a job with a specialist timber engineer, even if the prospective employer is in a position to train them in the specialism, so there need to be post-graduate opportunities for engineers to learn detailed and advanced timber engineering.

In short, if the UK timber industry is to embed in students a basic understanding of the use of timber, what is needed from industry is investment – of money, time and access to projects. Structural engineering is about creating real buildings and successful engineers – those who enjoy their work and design buildings to be proud of – are strongly connected to the reality of the construction process.

At undergraduate level, the industry can enable practitioners to contribute by teaching about real projects and real methods. Industry can give students the benefit of visits to sites and factories as well as direct work experience in placements, for a summer or for a whole year. As engineers develop their career, the industry should enable them to build specialist skills, by supporting masters courses and other forms of post-graduate learning. Companies can sponsor Knowledge Transfer Partnerships to embed and develop specialist knowledge and skill in their business. In addition, by supporting PhD research, industry will support development of timber engineering expertise in universities.

All these forms of support have proved effective at the University of Bath, where we teach an introduction to timber engineering to undergraduates, provide support to students in their project work and have a strengthening research group specialising in timber engineering. Industry supports us through lectures by practitioners, support for dissertation and PhD research projects and in attendance at timber CPD events. This has enabled a handful of students to go into specialist timber engineering jobs. But Bath and other universities need more input from industry.

In this way more graduates will leave university with a better knowledge of timber, sufficient for them to know how to respect it as a material and be confident in adopting it in their structures. Then, more specialists will emerge through research and more engineers will have the opportunity to contribute to the development of an innovative UK timber industry.