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Can we cope with a skills shortage?

The signs are stronger than ever that Government is at last ready to put some serious cash into rebuilding the nation's transport infrastructure. But can the civil engineering industry cope with the resulting boom in workload? Antony Oliver reports.

The last decade has been a tough time for the construction industry with public investment in infrastructure gradually whittled away.

Despite hopes that post privatisation cash would make up the shortfall - with some success in the case of the water industry, less so with the rail industry - the industry has been in the doldrums.

But the situation is changing.

Next month the Government is expected to announce a major increase in transport spending, including a boost to the roads programme. On top of this, work on the £400M Birmingham Northern Relief Road is due to get under way next year, as is the second phase of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. The net result is that the industry could be swamped by the oncoming upturn.

The net result is that fewer young people have entered the profession. University courses attract fewer students and those that do graduate are more likely to be attracted into other professions.

Add to this the problem caused by experienced staff transferring their skills to other, more lucrative industries, and the situation is beginning to scare industry bosses.

The Civil Engineering Contractors Association's most recent workload survey highlighted that 40% of its members are already having difficulties getting the right staff. This is a record, according to CECA director Jim Turner.

Already firms are seeking staff from overseas and increasingly subcontracting design work to low cost centres abroad.

Turner puts the staff shortages down to a combination of fewer people entering the industry, changes in procurement practice and legislation. Changing procurement practice has led to a larger number of small jobs which need proportionately higher numbers of staff. New health and safety laws have also created extra jobs for safety supervisors.

'Clients are transferring more risk and responsibility to the contractor and have greater aspirations from projects, ' adds Turner. 'This means more people are needed to process the work.'

But despite the lack of skilled people, Turner rejects the notion that skill shortages will make Government think twice about investing in infrastructure.

He believes that increases in workload are likely to be phased in over several years, giving the industry time to gear up. But Turner warns: 'If someone was to press the accelerator hard then potentially there will be a problem.'

CECA has been lobbying Government to make its spending plans more transparent over a longer period of time to enable the industry to prepare properly.

Turner feels that if the industry has a reasonable amount of time to prepare for an upturn, there is no reason why it cannot cope with any increase in workload.

And he firmly believes the industry still has time to organise its resources and become more efficient to meet the needs of an increased workload.

However, he adds: 'We cannot hide the results of our survey - there are record levels of firms having trouble getting staff.

We need more rather than fewer graduates entering the industry.'

Chris Irwin Childs, business director at the Association of Consulting Engineers, believes that the industry is 'hungry for the opportunity' to have its resources stretched.

Its ability to respond to a sudden increase in workload is not in question, he says, particularly when it comes to large projects.

He is convinced that there are already sufficient skills within the industry to cope. What he fears, however, is that the workload depression over the last decade has affected consultants' efforts to develop and reshape engineers' skills.

'Retraining has been stifled by the lack of funds over the last few years, ' he says. 'Numerically, there is not a problem getting the skills but organisations are just not in expansive modes.'

However, Irwin Childs points out that the recent downturn has also stifled engineers' exposure to major project experience and on the job mentoring.

Businesses, he says, need to adapt their workforce - to pass on knowledge through mentoring and fill the gaps caused by the lack of real project experience for younger engineers.

'There is a danger that the construction industry becomes composed of specialists, ' he warns. 'But every middle manager needs a broad understanding of the industry - there's nothing like working on a project to learn this and mentoring from those that have the experience is vital.'

It is this mid career training which Irwin Childs feels is vital in allowing the industry to cope with a predicted upturn in workload. Once these managers are installed and working well, he says, the rest of the industry can operate effectively.

The longer term problem of attracting more people into civil engineering will only turn around, he says, when the workload picks up.

'People will be attracted back if there is a future in the industry, ' he says.

'Low salaries are an issue. We can attract the skills back but we can just as easily lose them to other industries.'

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