Victoria’s first Chief Engineer shares her vision for the future of the state

Dr Collette Burke, Victoria's first Chief Engineer

With $10 billion of annual engineering projects in track, Victoria has created a new position to ensure impeccable advice and direction. Meet Victorian Chief Engineer Collette Burke.

There is a staggering portfolio of engineering projects in Victoria right now, from bridges to roads, railway stations to sporting arenas and hospitals to libraries.

It seems that everywhere one looks, new life is sprouting: unique shapes created to fit the future needs of a fast-growing state. Such a broad set of builds requires strong direction to ensure consistency, quality and fit for purpose.

Victoria's Chief Engineer Dr Collette Burke.

Chief Engineer Dr Collette Burke (front centre) will shape the future of engineering in Victoria.

The Victorian State Government realised that with so much on the line, regular expert advice was essential. In January this year it appointed Dr Collette Burke to the newly designed role of Victorian Chief Engineer. For Dr Burke it’s a role that, in a way, she’s been preparing for since she was 16 years old.

After undertaking work experience during her school days in civil engineering at a construction project at Melbourne Airport, she knew exactly where her future career would lie.

“I thought it was absolutely amazing,” she said.

“The work, the dynamics, the planning and building of the most amazing infrastructure you could possibly imagine – I said, ‘That’s it. This is what I’m going to do!’.”

Having gone on to study a Bachelor of Civil Engineering, a Master in Engineering Science, Harvard Business School courses and a PhD in risk management, Dr Burke is now the Managing Director of Exner Group, General Manager of Karsta Middle East and a Director on the VicTrack board.

In a candid interview with create, Dr Burke shared her vision of the future of engineering in Victoria.

create: How long is your appointment as Victorian Chief Engineer?

The appointment is for two years, but I am hoping to build a solid work plan that will extend far into the future for the role of the Victorian Chief Engineer.

create: What are your key priorities in this role?

Initially my focus will be on the extensive portfolio of projects in Victoria, so a key priority is to provide support and advice to government on those projects.

Another key area is looking at how we foster better connectivity between government, industry, educational institutes and professional bodies. How do we align and leverage off industry, performance and capability in an environment of such significant investment and growth?

With this level of growth and investment comes major demand on resources — so there will also be a strong focus on the engineering capability not just in government, but across the state. We have to look at how we leverage the engineering capacity and how we work with the education sector to make sure our young people coming through into the industry get practical experience and exposure to the profession, just as I did.

This way, we create the spark and continue to feed their interest in this field and facilitate them entering the workforce as job-ready graduates. Continuing to work towards a very deep pool of experienced engineers is essential.

create: So the role is as much about the engineering profession as it is about the government?

I believe it combines both, as a support to the government and across the project portfolio, with a key role in raising the profile of the profession. This will ultimately benefit government, industry, professional bodies and educational institutions.

We have to forge these partnerships in order to deliver and create the infrastructure that will allow our cities to continue to develop. Those partnerships and connectivity are critical.

create: How can the industry better serve the Victorian Government?

Engineers have very good technical and problem-solving skills, so now it’s important to take those skills and look at building an expert knowledge bank. We need to make it easier for engineers to build relationships and networks. We’re not just in offices undertaking design calculations, or out in the field executing construction. We’re building precincts and entire cities. We don’t just build infrastructure independently.

Infrastructure must be synergised in the existing and future environment. We need a collaborative approach that includes an understanding of environmental impact and social impact. It’s a different mindset from how engineers worked in the past. Digital engineering technology and project visualisation will greatly assist with this.

create: How far has the engineer’s registration system gone right now in Victoria?

It’s a bill that has been tabled in parliament, therefore it’s going to evolve in the path of legislation. As Victorian Chief Engineer I will provide advice and support to assist the registration system being implemented.

The system will create consistent assessment and registration of engineers in Victoria, and one of my key goals is to ensure it is implemented with minimal disruption to the engineering profession. Built into that system will be a continued professional development component to make sure engineers are keeping their knowledge current and building the industry’s knowledge base.

create: You’re also passionate about levelling the gender playing field?

Victoria's first Chief Engineer Dr Collette BurkeInterestingly, when I was younger and came into the profession, I must admit I was quite oblivious to the fact that gender was an issue. I was just so excited to be in the industry and simply didn’t understand that gender created a difference in my role.

Through my past involvement as President and National Director of the National Association for Women in Construction, I began to understand the wider gender issues in industry. I have worked hard in all organisations I have been a part of to ensure we continue to develop initiatives and pathways to attract, develop and retain a greater percentage of females.

We still have quite a low percentage of women in engineering. We need to continue to find mechanisms to attract more young women and ensure they are supported to reach leadership roles. This will add to creating non-homogenous teams, which produce smarter and greater outcomes.

create: How has the reaction been, so far, to the appointment of a Victorian Chief Engineer?

The reaction is overwhelming and very exciting. A significant number of both industry leaders, and governments are wanting to explore the opportunities and changes this role can bring to Victoria.

Common threads through the diverse engagement have centred around raising the profile of the profession, resources and capacity in the state, proven technology that can easily be adopted to assist performance of people and projects, and sustainable construction. I have incorporated these items into my priorities for the forward work plan.

create: At the end of your two-year appointment as Victorian Chief Engineer, how will you measure your success?

We’re heading into a new era that involves significant technological development. This means the way in which we deliver projects will be different from how we’ve done it in the past. This role is very much around ensuring a fostering of knowledge and a sharing of advancement, innovation and development between the government, the private sector, educational bodies and professional bodies.

Dr Collette Burke will be a keynote speaker at the World Engineers Convention 2019, 20-22 November in Melbourne. 

Register now.

Rachael Brown

Author Rachael Brown

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