James Tolar


Graduate Civil Engineer

Laing O’Rourke

James Tolar is a Graduate Civil Engineer at Laing O’Rourke, currently developing level crossing removal projects as part of the South Eastern Program Alliance. He is committed to modernising construction best practice through learning from the perspectives of work crews and the innovations of external industries. He graduated from RMIT University with a Bachelor of Engineering (Civil and Infrastructure) (Honours) in 2017.

How long have you been a member of Engineers Australia?
I became a member of Engineers Australia in 2014, during my first year of university.

Why did you pursue a career in engineering?
I enjoyed the challenges of creating and wanted to develop communities through a career spent effecting positive change.

During mid-high school, I wasn’t sure what engineering was. I didn’t know any engineers, and none of my high school peers (at the time) were aspiring to become engineers. I knew I enjoyed maths, physics and creating, however I was oblivious to how these interests could merge to initiate a fulfilling career.

For Year 12, I moved schools to St Bede’s College where I received wonderful support in both my academic and personal development. My maths teacher, Jenny Melia, and physics teacher, Shane Heatley, drove me academically and encouraged me to pursue engineering. Thanks to them, I found a profession that allowed me to both serve communities through creativity and gratefully remain a lifelong learner.

How can Australian communities/people/society benefit from your work now and in the future?
I’m dedicated to both modernising construction best practice and supporting the development of diverse future engineering talent.

The construction industry’s modernisation remains considerably behind other industries; and in practice is often insular in how it solves engineering problems.

Our projects are unique; however, the problems and solutions we can employ to resolve them, often, are not. To improve the efficiency and effectiveness by which we engineer, I believe it is critical that we learn from the best practices of other industries. When approaching a construction problem, I try to merge the expertise of the workforce building it with learnings from homogenous practices, to ensure I’m always driving conducive project outcomes.

Similarly, I believe to achieve successful, progressive construction outcomes, we must meet our diverse engineering challenges with diverse mindsets. Through breaking down the entry barriers people face when considering engineering, and further supporting their development should the profession interest them, I hope to diversify our industry and eventually evolve the ways by which we develop communities. I am leading a really exciting high school STEM development partnership which I hope will be a foundation to achieve this.

What is the most challenging or interesting project you’ve ever worked on?
The most interesting project I’ve been involved in was the redevelopment of West Melbourne Terminal Station; a facility forming part of Victoria’s 220kV distribution network which (alongside Richmond Terminal Station) powers the majority of Melbourne’s CBD.

The redevelopment of West Melbourne Terminal Station was one of the first projects I worked on as a junior engineer. Under the mentorship of Hadley de Ridder, I was able to learn and be challenged by the project’s diverse construction scope. Amidst many roles, this project allowed me to experience complex civil structures construction, manage plant and facilitate contracts administration. The work was diverse, challenging and memorable.

This project has been neither the largest in scope, nor highest in financial value that I’ve been involved in. However, in it I experienced a strong culture of teamwork that effectively integrated diverse engineering disciplines to create an infrastructure solution that remains critical to Victoria’s operation. It remains a project I’m proud of, and through experiencing what well led collaboration could achieve, it’s the reason I have chosen to pursue a career in construction.

What do you see as one of the biggest issues facing the engineering profession?
The supply and upskilling of engineers to facilitate the delivery of an increasing global infrastructure pipeline is one of the biggest issues I see facing the engineering profession.

To successfully deliver both the localised construction boom we are experiencing in Victoria, and more broadly, the diverse technical demands of developing nations globally, there is an inherent need for innovative, diverse and experienced engineers.

Locally, statistics from Engineers Australia show an upward trend of engineering vacancies developing across the majority of engineering disciplines. Similarly, their statistics show a decline in students applying to study engineering degrees. To support both the profession of engineering and the works’ pipeline it services, we as a community subsequently need to rethink the way we attract and upskill engineering talent. Albeit through high school STEM engagement programs, social media driven mentorship/networking or analysing the barriers of entry people face when considering engineering, we must enact change to expect change.

The scale of engineering problems our world faces is both exciting and unprecedented. These diverse problems require diverse mindsets to develop efficient, effective solutions that service our communities. Through this pipeline, we’re faced with a unique opportunity to diversify what we think an engineer should be, to support what we could be. As we aim to attract and upskill engineers, we must work harder as a community to value and support the diversification of our industry; as to value and support the development of our communities.

What excites you about the future of the profession or what opportunities do you see for the future?
I’m most excited to see how our concept of engineering changes through the evolution of traditional engineering disciplines.

As the volume and extent of projects grow (supported by global digitisation), traditional engineering disciplines will incrementally evolve. Multidisciplinary engineering functions have the capacity to both evolve the engineering profession and the quality of its outputs. In answer to industry demands, we are beginning to see the need for, and development of, integrated engineering streams; such as systems engineering. Driven by teamwork and digitised connectedness, I look forward to seeing how interdisciplinary demands challenge and advance the profession of engineering.

Who is your engineering hero?
Any engineer who uses teamwork and creativity to sustainably service the communities we live in. But also, Hadley de Ridder and Conor Hanlon for the patience they showed mentoring me through my early 20’s!

Image: provided by James Tolar