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Be prepared: Get the skills and training to ride out the storm

Four weeks ago I urged graduates with their heart set on a career in civil engineering to “get out there in the workplace by any means possible − paid or otherwise”. Much to the dismay of quite a few correspondents to the letters page and online, it seems.

The concept of unpaid internships is clearly no longer a particularly popular one within the civil profession. In fact my mere suggestion that this could be a genuine solution to the industry’s current recruitment downturn led to the idea being slammed as “ridiculous”, “disgraceful”, “living in a fantasy land”, “complete rubbish” and a joke. Well, sorry but I stand by what I said.

According to figures in this year’s Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) employment survey, it really is all looking pretty grim for anyone leaving university with their heart set on a career in civil engineering.

“The idea was slammed as ‘ridiculous’, ‘disgraceful’, ‘complete rubbish’ and a joke. Well, sorry but I stand by what I said.”

As NCE highlights this week, vacancies in construction and consulting are down by 41% with 34 graduates seeking every job on offer and starting salaries − if you can get one − remaining flat since last year.

And along with many other leading industry figures spoken to by NCE, the AGR agrees that one critical factor in protecting employment opportunity and business capability is a return to a culture of engineering internships.

As I said before, we are not talking about slave labour. But we are talking about opportunity and experience as firms and individuals prepare themselves for an upturn.

But interestingly I have also had a couple of conversations and letters from older engineers reminiscing about their own internships − and specifically how they actually had to pay for the privilege of working and being trained.

In these cases the sentiment was very clearly about investing in the future − young engineers showed a commitment which was subsequently repaid by their employer.

“In past cases the sentiment was very clearly about investing in the future.”

So if we are referring to anything as “ridiculous”, it should be that some graduates are still not grasping the scale of the current downturn.

And equally it is that there are still firms out there who are not prepared to invest for the future by continuing to take on graduates.

But fortunately it is not all doom. The AGR report highlights the continued growth in the energy, water and utilities sectors, clearly born out by the scale of ambition and investment still planned in these sectors.

At NCE’s nuclear new build conference talk was very much about how the UK finds engineering skills to deliver the immediate aspirations then replaces the aging workforce.

The great thing about civil engineering is the breadth of disciplines which it encompasses.

The nation faces huge challenges in balancing the books and driving out of recession but market will return. We must all − corporately and individually − be prepared, with the right skills, to ride this wave.

Readers' comments (2)

What do you think about the unpaid internship debate?

  • I've been reading the comments on this debate and getting increasingly irritated with the attitude of some graduates. I'm a female mature student, just about to start my final year having taken a 'year' out to do an industrial placement. I gave a huge amount up to do this, I've put a lot of strain on my family, I'm in FAR more debt than a 21 yr old-with many more responsibilities and at the end of my placement I offered to work for free as for the company who had taken me on have a total recruitment freeze. As I said to my boss, I can't pay for this experience. The company pay my travel expenses, they have some ethical qualms but frankly, I'll do what have to do. I support myself by working weekends at Tesco and evenings at a call centre- it's a few months full time and I'll work for them on my days off from Uni.

    There's just a shocking sense of entitlement- so you paid for your degree, so what? Look at the opportunities it'll give you over your life! I paid for my first degree when I graduated in law in Ireland many moons the teeth of another recession..even then I had the cop on to understand it didn't guarantee me a job so I did pro-bono work. A good degree will give you a foot in the door, experience makes you employable. So many students on my degree course said they 'couldn't be bothered' to even apply for a placement because they didn't think it was important (out of approx 200 of us ELEVEN applied for and got placements in January 2008) and these are the same ones I saw at their post-graduation bash complaining about how hard done by they are, how they were misled and how the industry owes them a living.

    Do you want to do this or not? If you do you'll have to bite the bullet, suck it up and make whatever short term sacrifices you have to to put yourself ahead of the pack. Life's unpredictable and unfair-get over it

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  • kleboe

    The prospect of working unpaid won't excite anyone, but I'm afraid its a sign of the times. Vacancies at the junior end of engineering have all but evaporated. I would urge graduates to do what they can to secure work because it will pay off in the long-run. I think the lady above has made some very good points about doing what you can to secure the future you want. You will be rewarded when the market picks up.

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