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Back to school

Cover story: Young engineers

As skills shortages bite, engineering firms are turning to schools to solve their recruitment problems.

Initiatives range from building bridges with primary school children to sponsoring students through university.

Margo Cole reports.

Try separating a couple of seven year olds from their Lego and you will soon discover that many young children have a natural drive and aptitude for engineering. So why is it that, by the time they are 17, many have become drained of that enthusiasm and have stopped considering construction as a career option?

It's a complex problem. Children switch off in maths and science classes; teachers and careers advisers know little about the industry; other degree courses are far easier to get on to. And children are given little encouragement to discover that the toys that gave them such enjoyment can actually lead to a fulfilling career.

Now the industry is starting to address this issue. Spurred on by dramatically falling applications for civil engineering degree courses and increasing panic at the shortage of skilled people to design and maintain the nation's infrastructure, consultants and contractors are making their presence felt in the UK's schools.

As a recruitment policy it might seem like a bit of a long shot: targeting children as young as 10 in the hope that they will eventually join your company.

But many firms believe it will reap long term rewards - initially by raising the profile of the industry and then, as the children get older, by tying them into one company through work experience, gap year and vacation employment and sponsorship through university.

Strategies range from offering a week of work experience through to offering to 'adopt' a child through their secondary school career and right through university.

Most firms are working at a local level, linking with schools near design offices and sites or where links already exist through staff members. Mott MacDonald, for example, encourages young graduates to work with schools in Croydon, while FaberMaunsell has close links with schools in the St Albans area.

'We bring a group of A-level students into the office on an annual basis for a day long project to do a management challenge or a design challenge, ' explains Dick Harris, chief engineer at Halliburton KBR. 'We have a couple of examples where young kids who have joined us remember spending that day here, but we must have had 180 here in the last six years, so that's a pretty low hit rate.

'Why do we go into schools? Because seven, eight and nine year old children want to be engineers, but somewhere between 10 and 17 they get put off, ' he says.

Halcrow also claims you have to take a 'fairly altruistic' approach, focusing on raising the profile of the industry, not just the company. It has worked particularly closely with a secondary school in Essex to promote the industry to girls and raise the profile of women in civil engineering.

Babtie starts even younger, harnessing that 'Lego effect' by visiting primary schools with playground sized bridge sections for the children to piece together.

The really hard sell comes later, when children hit the age of 15 or 16 and go out on work experience. This is where some of the earlier work put in by the companies pays dividends, as students will already know a bit about engineering and will, hopefully, want to spend a week with a consultant or contractor finding out more.

Developing a good relationship with the individual student - and providing them with interesting work - can be the first step towards recruitment.

John Allen Consulting is leaving nothing to chance, and has signed up one 17 year old with a promise to sponsor him through university, give him vacation employment and a job at the end of it all. Joe O'Brien, a student at the London Oratory school, was selected after the consultant held a competition at July's Tomorrow's World Roadshow exhibition.

Children were enticed by an interactive computer game, which tested their bridge designing ability. The firm made the promise of sponsorship through their engineering career for the student who came up with the best result.

'We were looking for someone with natural engineering ability, who didn't just change the member sizes willy nilly, ' explains chairman John Allen, who claims the exercise could cost the company up to £20,000 in course fees, sponsorship and wages. Joe will be given help with his homework and in choosing a university, and constant back-up from the consultant while he is at university.

Match making in Surrey Surrey University has a programme of matching students to contractors and consultants under a scholarship programme set up with the ICE.

Students applying to the University of Surrey's MEng and BEng courses this autumn automatically have the chance to bid for sponsorship covering their entire university careers. The university has teamed up with the Institution of Civil Engineers and 21 industrial partners to offer scholarships that include a bursary of £1,500 a year, guaranteed paid work during summer vacations and a placement for the third year, which is spent in industry.

The scheme, which was launched this time last year, is open to all applicants to the degree courses. Some 40% of last year's intake - now beginning their second year - are on the scholarship programme.

To take part in the scheme, students must apply for a place at the university in the usual way during the autumn. If the university offers them a conditional place - usually just after Christmas - potential students are invited to apply for the scholarship programme.

Those who are interested are invited, with their families, to a day of events and interviews at the ICE's London headquarters.

Interviews are conducted by engineers from the partner companies, who try to identify the students that show a genuine enthusiasm for civil engineering.

Those that pass muster are offered a place on the scholarship scheme - assuming they achieve the A-level grades the university has demanded.

Soon after the start of the course, a process begins to match the scholarship students with appropriate companies. This starts with the students being given information about the firms and is followed by a day in October when the firms and students are brought together to talk informally and check each other out. Both sides then have the chance to state their preferences - confidentially - and the university matches them as best they can.

By the end of November the matches have been made, and the students are assigned to a particular consultant or contractor.

The first scholarship cheque will arrive at Christmas, and contact will be set up between the two parties.

From then on it is the company's responsibility to provide suitable employment during summer vacations and to employ the students for their third year.

Surrey University graduate studies director Dr Rob Griffiths says that 'everybody worries about the commitment' - particularly parents. But he stresses that 'if things don't work out there is no financial penalty on the student'.

The contractual arrangements are on a rolling one year programme, so if, for example, a mistake has been made in the matching process, or a student realises they would like to swap from being with a contractor to a consultant, there is a safety net that enables students to transfer between partner companies.

Griffiths says the benefit of the programme is that 'it is in everybody's interest to make the most of the training', so companies have to work hard to impress the students if they want to keep hold of them. He says the first summer vacation period is critical in defining the student's level of involvement in the firm and its projects, so students shouldn't find themselves twiddling their thumbs but working on live projects.

INFOPLUS See also NCE's courses special, p29 For more information on civil engineering courses at Surrey University visit www. surrey. ac. uk/CivEng. For details of the scholarship programme contact Dr Griffiths on 01483 879531.

Technical switch

The skill shortage in the industry is not just at the graduate and chartered engineer level. Consultants are crying out for skilled technicians, and are targeting schools to fill the gaps.

When consultant Atkins' Bristol office found itself desperate for technicians for its highways and transportation department, it set up a 'schools liaison project team' with the brief to go into schools, raise the profile of engineering and try to recruit. The 12-strong team comprises graduates, senior engineers and human resources and training experts. It has developed effective links with the local Education & Skills Council, the Construction Industry Training Board and branches of Connexions, the government advisory service for teenagers.

'We contacted them and made them aware that we were here to put in resources, ' explains Atkins schools liaison co-ordinator Sue Davies. 'The organisations we contacted realised we were serious about it and we started to get referrals to help out in schools.'

The links worked, as three technicians were quickly recruited, but Atkins is continuing with the schools liaison, supporting teachers, providing course work and offering work experience for Year 9 and 10 students and for those studying GNVQs. 'We decided to target three or four schools, ' explains Davies. 'We do industry days with them, work with their students and have even had one of their teachers working here with us.'

During the summer term, the office offers a week's work experience to six 15 year olds, who may find themselves helping out with survey work, reporting their findings and following a project through.

Peter Brett Associates also has a policy of forging close links with schools. Recruitment and training manager Felicity Warren says the company likes to address 14 to 16 year olds to give them the chance to find out what the industry is all about.

This year the firm took on eight 16 year old school leavers to go through the HNC level with the company. 'They are a valuable commodity to us because they become very useful very early on as CAD operators and technicians, ' explains Warren.

Peter Brett was also instrumental in developing an NVQ for transport technicians, now in its second year.

Working on growth Contractor Costain is targeting school children as it seeks to boost staff numbers in pursuit of an ambitious growth strategy.

'Work experience is the most significant influence in terms of career choices, so it is the most important way of encouraging people to look at construction, ' says Jeremy Galpin, Costain's recruitment and retention manager.

The company wants to build the business up to a turnover of £1bn - something that requires growth of 15% a year and up to 400 new staff.

To help meet this demand it is launching a programme of schools liaison, sponsorship and recruitment under the banner 'Building Awareness'.

Work experience is a key ingredient in the strategy.

In each region of the UK Costain has identified a senior manager - at project manager or director level - to act as co-ordinator for Building Awareness and link their office or site with a local school.

Ten schools will be partnered. Students and teachers will be offered help and advice, information on the construction industry and teaching resources that tie into key stages in the national curriculum. Students are also offered work experience.

The scheme will be launched formally later this month, but is already under way in two schools, where students have visited sites, carried out an instrumentation exercise and attended industrial days.

Work experience will mainly be offered to 16 and 17 year olds - those who have chosen the relevant A-level subjects but might not have made up their minds about what to study at university, or who are considering a career in engineering.

'We're making sure they're looking at Costain, ' says Galpin, adding that the firm also promotes non-engineering opportunities in finance, management and marketing.

'With the work experience we are trying to generate people who want to go all the way through and become members of staff, ' he explains.

'We will track them, and if they are right for Costain we will offer them bursaries through university.'

The firm sponsors 12 students annually - a figure Galpin expects to rise - and offers placements both during vacations and the industrial year of degree courses.

Costain has committed £20,000 for the first two years of the Building Awareness programme, after which it will be reviewed.

Bridging the gap

Consultants are starting to offer work experience and cash to gap year students.

The traditional mechanism for consulting engineers to recruit young staff has been the 'milk round' tour of universities that puts final year students in touch with potential employers.

Many of the UK's largest consultants still employ a high percentage of new graduates this way, but they are increasingly trying to tempt them into the business at a far younger age - as raw school leavers.

The so-called 'gap year' between school and university used to be the chance for young people to do a bit of travelling, find themselves and grow up a bit before embarking on their university career. Now, many spend a large chunk of that 12 months working for an engineering company.

For the students there are enormous benefits - not least a pay packet for the whole year.

And for the consultant, it is the chance to recruit young, enthusiastic students who will, hopefully, stay loyal to the firm and eventually come to work for them permanently.

Leading engineers like Arup, Peter Brett and Mott MacDonald are targeting gap year students and tempting them with bursary packages worth around £1,500 a year, plus paid work experience.

Arup runs a formal programme of gap year training, with more than 20 school leavers working throughout the firm. The firm's human resources officer Neil Shaw says: 'The benefits for us are that we get someone working from September to the following summer who is very keen and enthusiastic, a willing worker who wants to learn and is very eager and sharp.

'The benefits for them are huge, ' he says. 'They get nine or 10 months in a leading engineering design firm before going to university, which gives them a tremendous advantage over their colleagues because they can link the theoretical to the practical.'

Arup has a pre-selection and interview process for choosing the gap year trainees, and also encourages them to mix socially with each other as well as other team members.

Towards the end of the year, if they have impressed their managers, the trainees are offered sponsorship to help them through the first year of university. The only commitment the students must make is to return to Arup for six weeks during the first summer vacation.

Arup reviews the success of the relationship every year. 'If they are a sponsored student and they get through to the final year and we're not offering them a job then the process is not working properly, ' says Shaw. 'If they're still in the system by that stage we're interested in them.'

Although most of the Arup trainees apply directly, a handful come through the Year in Industry initiative, which links businesses with students for gap year employment. Other civil engineering firms signed up to the scheme include Halcrow, Scott Wilson and Hyder, which has nine trainees who applied through this route starting this month.

INFOPLUS For more information on the Arup gap year programme go to www. arup. com/recruitment

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