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Course of action

A major drive is under way to recruit students into civils degree courses amid growing concerns of a skills shortage.

The Irish engineering community has two active representative bodies, the Institution of Engineers of Ireland (IEI) and the Association of Consulting Engineers of Ireland (ACEI). Their members have seen dramatic changes over the past few years, but the profession is facing its biggest challenge, to spearhead the improvements to the country's infrastructure.

Demand for places on engineering courses was until recent years always high, with an engineering education and career prospects widely respected.

But since the economic boom took hold, there has been a falloff in the number of engineers graduating and this is causing major concern. 'There is a real risk that because of this shortage, industrial development and infrastructure development could be endangered, ' says IEI director general Paddy Purcell.

The IEI, which has 17,000 members across all engineering disciplines, produced a detailed report examining what was happening last year. It makes worrying reading.

It shows that while the number of people graduating has increased across the board since 1985, the proportion studying engineering subjects has dropped from 15.2% to 10.6%.

The latest available figures show that 348 graduated with civil engineering degrees in the Republic of Ireland, out of a total of 1,549 across all engineering disciplines.

The government, whose initiatives include a £200M investment in technology education and the establishment of an expert group to examine needs, had focused on the IT sector, and did not even meet the IEI. But now the need for skilled civil and structural engineers and technicians is being recognised at the highest level, with 500 engineers needed to plan and design the road programme alone. Seeking engineers from overseas is seen as a short term fix, while sending work abroad is a lost opportunity for the home profession and denies experience to young engineers.

The report concluded that around 2,200 extra engineers and technicians will be needed annually over the next six years, and that graduate output must increase by 1,000 in the interim to 1,500 more, with around a fifth of the above in construction disciplines. Of particular concern is the low 6% participation rate of women in the profession.

To solve the problem, the IEI recommends establishing targets and forming a high level forum including engineers to examine how they can be implemented. But in the meantime, it has embarked on a promotion of the profession to win new recruits at second level. Complete with glossy brochures - with considerably more than 6% of women on their pages - the Schools Technology & Engineering Programme for Schools aims to reverse the downward trend and was unveiled by the Irish minister for education Dr Michael Woods last month.

'When economies are doing well, people want to go into business studies and marketing and such areas. They don't realise that a lot of wealth creation comes from engineering, ' says the IEI's Purcell.

Down the road at the ACEI, the shortages are being felt too.

'We find that young people now interview you. They want assurances of good training, good variety of work and opportunities too, ' says ACEI honorary secretary Derrick Edge. Five month evening courses organised with the Institution of Structural Engineers are well attended, showing that graduates are prepared to put in the time themselves.

'Engineering professions are still attracting the right calibre of people who are interested in innovation and something different, and money isn't always the attraction. Many like the opportunity to work as part of a team with people who are like minded, ' he says.

The volume of work for consultants is unprecedented. In 1989, only 654 people were employed by ACEI members: this surged to 2,350 last year and this does not include all consultants. The number of member firms has grown in the same period from 138 to 175.

The ACEI says that despite hectic workloads, moves towards 'fee bidding' by some clients are a threat that must be resisted.

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