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Geotechnical careers: Seize the moment

Government is helping more people take geotechnical engineering MScs, but employers must do their bit to attract these engineers, says Martin Blower.

Perhaps missed by many, but within the 2014 Spending Review, it was announced that “…all students studying a taught masters course would be eligible in 2016 to borrow £10,000 to cover the cost of their tuition fees, irrespective of the duration of study, or whether they are studying full-time or part-time”.

This announcement is actually very important for the geotechnical sector, as the only way of presently obtaining a geotechnical engineering degree is through the MSc route. The absence of first degree courses in geotechnical engineering has always made the geotechnical path more convoluted and costly, both issues that deter students from considering this rewarding career path.

Extending the student loans scheme to include masters degrees will mean that an undergraduate can study civil engineering, at a BEng level and then continue on to study an MSc in geotechnical engineering, without a break in funding.

piling at battersea

Geotechnical engineers: Demand is on the increase

Given the almost constant stream of media reminders and vox pops from government ministers warning about the growing skill shortage in the construction sector, this announcement of extended funding is a welcome move and something the Federation of Piling Specialists (FPS) has lobbied for. The government’s official Shortage Occupation List highlights the growing skills shortage in the geotechnical field and raises concerns about its impact on the economic growth we are presently experiencing.

The construction sector is at the heart of the UK’s recovery. Clearly, geotechnical engineering is an essential part of the wider industry and having properly qualified geotechnical engineers is vital.

Up until now the industry has sought assistance from the government by making sure that geotechnical engineers are included on the list. This means it is easier for employers to appoint qualified professionals from outside Europe.

But, ultimately this is wholly unsatisfactory. Recently the UK became the world’s fifth largest economy, yet we cannot find geotechnical engineers in large enough numbers to build the infrastructure that we will need to continue to grow.

So what more can industry do? Well, the first thing is to promote geotechnics, highlighting its importance to the construction sector and the opportunities it presents for a long-term and varied career path. The FPS has recently commissioned a short careers video with interviews to camera from a number of recent graduates, who are now working in different roles throughout the geotechnical engineering sector. The video will be available for use in presentations, as well as promoted through YouTube and other social media platforms.

Initiatives like this are important if we are to capture the engineering students of the future.

Secondly, employers have a responsibility to forge closer links with universities. We need to spell out what we expect from our graduates in terms of their knowledge and competencies.

Thought needs to be given to what should be taught at university and what is then subsequently left to the employer to train. So, if you employ graduates, link up with those institutions offering the Geotechnical Engineering MSc and, by being more active, contribute to making the course as relevant to future employment as possible.

Thirdly, universities need to take the time to talk to industry, shaping the courses and providing the learning and tutelage that will produce tomorrow’s graduates. Furthermore, the industry needs our academics to publicise the clear path that the MSc can offer the aspiring geotechnical engineer.

The employment openings are there to fill now. There is not a single graduate with a good MSc in geotechnical engineering that should not be able to find a job in today’s market.

That fact should be driving school leavers and students towards our academic institutions, and as a consequence we should see a greater number of courses and places being offered by universities. Perhaps it is being overly optimistic to suggest that this would become self-perpetuating and hence deliver the answer to one of our skills shortages.

Our time is now: the opportunities for geotechnical professionals are manifest; employers need to be creative to attract the best talent; funding for MScs will fall in line with that of a first degree (as in all probability will the fees); and universities are keen to engage with industry. So, come on, if you have any influence in our sector throw your weight behind promoting the MSc and let’s get the next generation of geotechnical engineers trained in the UK.

  • Martin Blower is chairman of the Federation of Piling Specialists

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