Ron Thomas, General Manager Engineering for CPB Contractors, has been a professional engineer for 45 years. In his current role he’s responsible for developing and growing the engineering discipline, which involves developing business systems and reviewing tenders and projects.
What are the biggest changes you’ve seen over the last 45 years?
The two biggest are technology and social responsibility.
Technologically, there has been a transformation. When I started everything was hard copy. The ability to manipulate data and get outputs is vastly superior now.
Engineering’s understanding of social and environmental responsibility has also been transformed. In the 1970s it was primitive. People used to dump fill into Sydney Harbour. Today, there is no way that could happen. Environmental laws, and the understanding and attitudes that underpin them, have completely changed.
A 45-year career in engineering means you must like the work.
I can’t deny that. What I like is the practicality of engineering. It has tangible outcomes and after 25-years-and-counting with CPB, I often drive past things we’ve built and say, ‘I helped build that’. It’s super satisfying and something I am very proud of.
I also like the teamwork. Major projects involve working with a lot of other people from a variety of disciplines. It is a very social way of working.
Tell us how you started?
I wanted to be a Qantas pilot, but that didn’t pan out and a friend recommended engineering because of the general applicability of the qualification and the diversity of the subjects
I studied civil engineering at Sydney University, and they had a first-year intake of about 300 students, but only one of them was female. Gender diversity in engineering in the 1970s was an unknown thing. Now, there are more and more good female engineers coming through. I support the initiatives CPB runs to encourage gender diversity. It is historically overdue because you want the best person for the job, and you can’t get that if half the intellectual talent in a population is always being overlooked.
My very first job was an upgrade of the Balmain coal loader, which involved the demolition of an old wharf. We used a steam-powered dredge – a piece of equipment from the industrial revolution, it was quite amusing.
Your career has taken you right around the world.
Engineering gives you the skills to work internationally and I’ve worked in different countries across Europe and Asia. It can be difficult, but the challenges and new environments are interesting. You can see techniques that you just would never see in Australia.
The first job I did for what is now CPB Contractors was in PNG where we were delivering mine infrastructure in an extinct volcano. There was hot water bubbling to the surface, very unstable terrain and the creeks running through the site had extreme ph levels. Delivering infrastructure in that sort of place posed some unique challenges.
What’s it like to work on a major project?
There is an intensity about working on major projects that people thrive on. It is a challenge to deal with all the issues that come at you, but it is also very rewarding. You deal with clients, project staff, the subcontractors, and the community. A big project will encompass almost every facet of construction you can imagine.
What’s your advice to young engineers?
Take the opportunities that arise. Sometimes you should just say YES and see what happens. Most of the time things work out well because you’ll get a set of experiences that you can build on for other things. Having a diverse set of experiences, and the diverse skills you’ll pick up on the way, is certainly the way to go.
I also think loyalty is important. Loyalty is a two-way thing, but if I get it I give it, which explains why I’ve been with CPB for 25 years.