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Companies speed up their recruitment as economy grows

Apprentices, graduates and qualified engineers - take your pick: civil engineering consultants are looking for a lot of new recruits. Figures in this year’s NCE Consultants File confirm what one consultant executive board member has described as a “different atmosphere in the industry now”.

If last year’s recruitment numbers were the first tentative signs of recovery, this year they show an acceleration. The top 20 recruiters have taken on more than 16,000 engineers between them worldwide over the past year.

Recruitment table

In the UK, last year a number of the top 20 were pointing at work overseas for driving growth. But every firm in this year’s top 20 that NCE has spoken to reported an uplift in work at home as well, across pretty much all sectors of civil and structural engineering.

“Now confidence has returned, we’re back into growth and need to recruit for projects coming through the door”

Mark Naysamith, WSP

WSP, for example, hired over 200 engineers in the UK in 2013 and recruited 80 graduates. “We were largely reacting to the market last year, but now confidence has returned, we’re back into growth and need to recruit for projects coming through the door,” says the firm’s UK managing director Mark Naysmith.

“We’re looking to recruit 600 people into the UK business over the coming year, including 70 graduates and 20 apprentices on the back of a 10% growth forecast.”

 

The residential market has picked up, rail continues to grow and London’s commercial sector is taking off again, Naysmith says.

Home and away

The dual effect of work picking up internationally and at home is being felt at a number of other big consultants. Aecom is the leading recruiter for the second year running. In 2012/13, encouraged by new work wins, the company had adopted a strategy of getting ahead of the curve by recruiting large numbers when growth for others was flat. Aecom has continued to ramp up its recruitment efforts over the past 12 months.

A further 553 engineers have joined the company from the UK, including 245 graduates.

“We are noticing two big trends internationally, which are civil infrastructure schemes in Saudi Arabia and Africa,” says Aecom transportation Europe managing director Richard Robinson.

“There are some mind bogglingly big projects out there, and a lot of opportunity in the UK. We have been successful winning work on big projects including High Speed 2 routes and major highways schemes, which are attracting people to the business. I don’t see an end to that over the next few years.”

Aecom is now marginally larger than it was at the start of the recession in 2008, although with a different balance, Robinson says. What the company has lost in shrinkage from local authority markets it has made up for in major projects work.

This represents a very rapid expansion, but the real growth in the UK is yet to come, particularly in infrastructure and housing, which has at least four years of catch up to play out.

Investment in infrastructure is driving recruitment, particularly in roads and rail, but there is a general uplift in markets across the board

More than one of the top 20 recruiters told NCE this week that there is a risk of overheating in the jobs market as demand for resources starts to outstrip supply. This is potentially a difficult time for consultants as fees are still at recession levels and now starting to lag behind increasing recruitment costs and rising salaries.

“A skills shortage may become a big problem, particularly in the rail sector. On electrification projects we will be making use of the experience of colleagues in Sweden,” Naysmith says. “Undoubtedly there are going to be challenges of retention, keeping hold of the best people and getting in sufficient new numbers.”

There are going to be plenty more opportunities for overseas recruits to come to the UK, and for expats to return to a well paid position, Naysmith adds.

Competitive packages

Opus International is a sizeable 3,000-strong company worldwide, but it is still quite small in UK terms. For Opus, competition for the best recruits means offering a great place to work and a competitive salary, benefits and training package, says the firm’s UK director of resourcing Huw Edwards.

“We’re one of the world’s largest specialists in transport asset management, with offices across New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the UK and to a lesser extent, the US. There are some exciting opportunities to work in a variety of places and for overseas staff to come over to the UK,” he says.

“Investment in infrastructure is driving recruitment, particularly in roads and rail, but there is a general uplift in markets across the board. Recruitment targets will be tough to meet. Everyone will be looking to recruit. Our aim of growing from 400 to 500 in the UK is big for us.

Training and forward visibility of a career path is key, as is the offer of summer placements for young people. We have had a lot of success recruiting this way.”

Similarly, Atkins has been putting substantial efforts into recruiting apprentices as part of its overall expansion plan.

“Civil engineering remains our number one discipline. Atkins has vacancies for about 200 experienced civil engineers worldwide,” says the company’s director of resourcing Chris Marsh.

In addition, Marsh says the company wants to recruit up to 100 people at the start of their careers - by which he means apprentices as well as graduates. Last year Atkins aimed to take on 75 “early years” starters to celebrate the company’s 75th anniversary.

“We exceeded that target, and this year we’re aiming for the same again,” says Marsh. “A lot of young people don’t want the expense of going to university. An apprenticeship can offer a great way into the civil engineering profession.”

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