Universities in the Middle East must do more to help the region’s young engineers. That is the key message from Maher Habanjar, the Lebanese civil engineer, who on 24 April was named Engineer of the Year at the MEED Project Awards 2019.

Habanjar, who is senior director of the water and environment division at consultant Khatib & Alami, says the market is increasingly difficult for young engineers, and it is incumbent on the region’s universities to do more to build connections with industry and foster opportunities for students.

“It is tough now for engineers,” says Habanjar. “You spend five years going through a tough curriculum, and even if you get really good grades, you may not immediately get picked up for a career. It is very frustrating and I have seen people almost giving up.”

Habanjar says he would like to see engineering schools in the region learning from their counterparts in North America, where the ties between academic institutions and private companies are well established.

“Universities and companies need to work together better,” he says. “I studied in the US where companies would ask us to join them before graduation and they would train us while we were still students.

“In Canada, I have seen universities establish deals with companies to hire students on a part-time basis and even pay them salaries. When they graduate, they have employment. The company trains the student in the way that it works and they pick up a full-blown engineer from day one.

“There are very strong relationships between universities and businesses in the region, but we don’t see this level of partnership and collaboration. This means there is a gap between what students learn at university, and the capabilities they need to start work. Engineers, even great engineers with solid grades are coming into the market and nobody is picking them up. This is very challenging.”

Transformational projects

In a civil engineering career that has spanned more than 32 years, Habanjar has been involved in the design, supervision and management of hundreds of water and environmental projects across the Middle East and North Africa and in North America. 

Many of his projects have been transformational for communities, providing water supply systems, complex transmission lines, flood mitigation strategies, dam structures and hydraulic models. His major infrastructure projects have included the award-winning Al-Wajeed water project to provide sustainable water supplies to remote communities in Saudi Arabia’s empty quarter; Litani River basin management advisory services in Lebanon; and the Queen Mary’s infiltration system in Canada to reduce pollution from stormwater runoff on Lake Ontario and recharge the ground table in Etobicoke City.

“Engineering is a philosophy,” he says. “Engineers don’t just build things. They solve problems. An engineer is a person who will research and explore an issue and who will come up with a mitigation plan and a solution. Our job is to solve problems. To mitigate issues. To help the environment and society.”

He says the role of the civil engineer is changing. “When I was in college, the buzz word was ‘feasibility’. You had to design a project that had the highest efficiency. When you were doing a design, you were looking at the dollar figure. How much was it going to cost the client. This was where your focus was.” 

“Today, feasibility is still important, but it is not the only issue,” he says. Environment is the most important issue. Today, the first thing we look at is where the design is going to be. What are the environmental conditions around it. What does the community look like. We start by looking at the boundaries with the area that design is going to be plugged in. We are also educating the client. You take the clients requirement and you also take the environmental conditions and the communities around it. Cost is important, but it is not the decisive figure.”

Habanjar says that universities must respond to this change. “Most universities are starting to change the engineering curriculum,” he says. “They are starting to introduce environmental studies. They need to change faster.” 

The desire to help communities succeed is key to Habanjar’s success as an engineer. “I come from a small village called Mazboud about 40 kilometres south of Beirut,” he says. “It has about 3,000 people. On my weekends, holidays and days off, I have helped the municipality to design and build a water system where we have installed a small reservoir on top of a hill. It has improved the water supply tremendously. We did a small trunk line for wastewater and eliminated 30 sceptic tanks. It is a small job. But it has cleaned up the community. I know everyone in the village. The municipal group are my friends. It started about 10-12 years ago and is still ongoing, but when I drive through the village, I can say ‘I did that’. People say ‘thank you’, and I feel proud.”

Habanjar is committed to training young engineers, but says it is a challenging time to enter the profession. “Things are changing,” he says. “Technology is evolving fast, especially in infrastructure engineering as well as the adaptation to the environment. You can’t just rely on what you learned at school. You must continue to research and explore yourself. You have to train yourself. The key is hard work.”