There's real power in the collective voice - with Susan Freeman-Greene

In the five years that Susan Freeman-Greene has been Chief Executive of Engineering New Zealand, a lot has changed. She has seen real value in the collective voice when organisations pull together for the betterment of Aotearoa. Recently appointed Chief Executive of Local Government New Zealand, we sat down and talked to Susan about our sector and the many challenges we face along the way. 

Susan Freeman-Greene

So Susan...what has happened in the last five years?   

At Engineering New Zealand, we've focused on how the profession could galvanise around some critical things like influence and credibility. 

Five years ago, we created a vision to bring engineering to life by focusing on developing influence and credibility and seeking greater recognition of the work the profession does in Aotearoa.  

We know engineering will be at the forefront of how we solve key issues like climate change, so we started to be very clear about what we stood for. We established that our role was three-fold: 

  1. To support our members 

  2. To ensure that the profession continues to raise the bar around quality and professionalism 

  3. To interact effectively with our communities so that engineers are increasingly influential, valued and trusted 

We also wanted to work in a more connected way, and I believe the profession has genuinely got behind this vision. Today we can tell our stories about the extraordinary engineering that's happening in New Zealand and how it impacts the world.  

We changed our name to Engineering New Zealand and also changed our look and feel to speak clearly to what we do – not just to the profession but to the communities we serve. We're now able to speak more powerfully and collectively in the corridors of power, which helps open more doors. 

We also realised that to truly get the respect of New Zealanders and to grow our pipeline; the sector needs to be representative of the public we serve. Woman, Māori and Pasifika are underrepresented. We know there are multiple barriers – some inherent in the way we teach STEM at school and some in the way engineers have traditionally been portrayed. We've made a lot of headway through the way we tell stories of diversity and especially through new initiatives like The Wonder Project and The Diversity Agenda. But there's still a long way to go!  

Engineering New Zealand is proud of the way we are tackling these challenges, shining a light on and celebrating engineers and engineering – and supporting the work of engineers with an inclusive, modern and adaptable organisation. 

How has the profession changed in the way it deals with issues?  

What I've noticed in the last few years is how the profession has changed in facing up to difficult issues.  

Five years ago, the profession was still reeling from the negative reputational fallout from the CTV tragedy in Christchurch after the Christchurch quakes. That incident was difficult for the profession to deal with in all sorts of ways, and we were still a bit paralysed in how to best respond to its aftermath. It was unbelievably confronting and sad, but we took the view that the best response was to use every tool at our disposal to learn from the events that unfolded and raise the bar for the whole profession. In the wake of the tragedy, we needed to focus on ethics, professionalism and accountability, and we had to be clear on what those things meant.  

I think over the years we have grown in the minds of the people and communities we serve by making a number of improvements in the areas of quality, ethical and accountability standards, which are the bread and butter of a credible and trusted profession, but there is more work to do. 

Have you been able to open the doors of power wider than they were five years ago? 

We have better access to officials and ministers now than ever before and have built many trust relationships. We're delivering pieces of work for several key agencies now where engineering is at its heart – like the Greater Christchurch Claims resolutions service set up for outstanding disputes after the Christchurch earthquakes. 

However, it is one thing to build these relationships, and it's another to be able to influence the change and outcomes you need in challenging areas at the time you require it. Change takes time, and influencing policy outcomes is an adaptive challenge. But we are better at it. We know that we will achieve better results for the greater good if we work together with organisations such as ACE New Zealand, engineering firms, Government and other stakeholders. 

The work we have collectively done in the occupation regulation space is a good example of how lobbying from the point of collective strength played a large part in shifting the discussion to a better place. That was away from the Government assuming it needs to step in and fix us, to a discussion about where lines between self and government regulation should lie – which is a much better place to start and something the profession has to work with Government on. After all, we all want the same thing – effective, straightforward regulation that assures greater public safety. To get there, we have needed to find a line we can all agree on – we should have government regulation for safety-critical work and better ways to manage risk and accountability in a proportionate way. We are right in the middle of this discussion now, and although COVID-19 – and now the upcoming election – has stalled some of that work, we are much more able to look at the issues collectively than we were five years ago. More generally, we are now much better placed to put pragmatic views forward and have them heard with more impact and with more traction, which is helping solve some of the problems that arise in our sector. 

What are the major challenges for our industry over the next 10 years? 

Engineering continues to diversify. There are challenges around holding the professional core and value with so many different types of engineering – and that is something that the profession and Engineering New Zealand will have to be very conscious of. 

As an industry, we also have a long way to go on diversity and inclusion. However, we are heading in the right direction, and most of our larger engineering organisations are aware of and are embracing, the challenges. They – and we – have taken some big steps in the last few years. When I arrived, the diversity conversation was non-existent, and that's not the case now. But there are still some significant challenges and some resistance, with difficult conversations to be had before we can say the industry is fully embracing diversity and inclusion. Even if you absolutely believe it's essential, there is still an awful lot of entrenched structures, systems and biases that will take tremendous effort to overcome. More sobering is that some pockets of the profession still protest the relevance of diversity when society tells us that unless we meaningfully engage with what it means to be inclusive (and what privilege we might have to give up), we will not earn the respect of society and will undercut our relevance.   

Our long-term pipeline needs work, and we still need more engineers in boardrooms and across all levels of leadership. Engineers are at the heart of some of the major challenges the country is facing at the moment, including resilience and climate change, and our people need to be at the forefront of those conversations.  

There are also some issues around systems and quality of engineering that the profession needs to stay focused on. 

However, what's incredibly encouraging and motivating is that the leaders of the profession are determined, committed and bring energy to these challenges. We have seen immense change over five years, and I think the momentum is only going to grow. Many more engineers are standing up for principles and values, using their leadership platforms with confidence, facing into quality and other issues, keen to raise the professional bar – and thinking thoughtfully about how they can adapt to the current changing COVID-19 world. It has been (and is) both humbling and a privilege to work with this extraordinary profession for over five years. 

Has the industry become more cohesive over the past five years?  

Our best changes and most effective impacts have been achieved by working together and bringing people together.  

We often have different views about what we think will work best but when we think instead about what we are trying to achieve and where we are heading – and the value of the collective voice – we get some significant momentum.  

When we get the engineering organisations and the leaders of engineering companies up and down the country all pulling in the same direction for the betterment of New Zealand, we have seen progress and some real change. That formula works for a reason, and it is also a continuous challenge. Our leaders and our communities need patience, persistence, clarity, empathy and confidence that we will get to that better place. But when those ingredients exist – it's magic. It's worth the mahi! 

Connect with Susan on LinkedIn