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Debate Skill shortages & career options

The skills shortage in civil engineering has become so severe that consultants are beginning to look overseas for their graduates.

This week we ask: Is civil engineering in the UK an attractive prospect for new graduates?


Only the other day I heard that graduates have 'never had it so good', with large starting salaries on offer and plenty of opportunities available. After seven years in the industry, I look at what is being offered now and can only be jealous.

Traditionally, UK industry's two biggest moans are salaries and responsibility - both quite rightly high on the agenda of young ambitious graduates.

With salaries, the competition for new graduates is truly global.

With demand outstripping supply from all business sectors construction has to compete with all industries to recruit the calibre of graduates it needs.

This means starting salaries are as good if not better than other professions.

The UK has led the move away from 'traditional' forms of contracting, which has created countless opportunities for recent graduates to progress rapidly into senior management.

As the industry moves away from purely construction to incorporate the financial and servicing elements further opportunities abound and now, irrespective of qualification, the industry offers a future for any graduate.

The competitive nature of our industry means that companies must continually look to progress or face extinction. With limited physical assets the principal asset of construction companies is its employees.

Companies are realising that to increase their value and guarantee their future they must recruit and retain the best graduates.

Potential high flyers are being identified early and are accelerated up the management ladder with fast track development programmes.

On top of all this you have the one aspect of our industry which has always been present and will be for ever more - job satisfaction. Engineering in Britain always offers exclusive projects - take the London Eye or Cardiff's Millennium Stadium. Not many industries offer you the chance to say 'I built that'.

The message is clear - in the construction industry it is only the limits of your determination and ability that will restrict your ambitions. Opportunities and rewards prevail but, as with every career, it is what you make of it - ask one of our 31 year old project managers.


I am of no doubt that employers in New Zealand provide graduates with a much greater variety of work and offer more responsibility at an earlier stage than in the UK.

This is predominantly a result of the scale of both consultancies and projects in New Zealand. For example, my first project, within weeks of beginning my career, involved design, preparation of contract documentation and site supervision.

Obviously this depends on the consultancy and on the project, but from my experience, a greater variety of experience in the different facets of engineering is more readily available in New Zealand than in the UK. In my 18 months working for a consultant in the UK I found myself specialising in one area and doing little else.

I am now responsible for a system that supplies water to over 1M people, with just five years experience. I could never be doing that in the UK without at least another 15 years' experience.

The registration process in New Zealand may be partly responsible for this. I am not registered, and some companies see this as important while others simply do not. It is certainly not as much hassle and there are no quarterly reports to be completed. All it takes is a three hour exam and a three hour interview.

Some employers will provide more support than others, depending on what they can gain from it themselves. There is not the structured training you get in the UK.

Salaries are probably worse than in the UK. The average starting salary for graduates is only £10,000. You will never be rich by being an engineer all your life in this country. But everything is relative and engineers in New Zealand with five years experience would expect to be in the top 10% of breadwinners.

Engineering, as a profession, tends to hold more prestige in New Zealand than it does in the UK. In fact I am not aware of anywhere in the world that engineering is held in less esteem than in the UK.

Don't get me wrong, New Zealand is definitely not the best place for a budding young engineer. But there are parts of the world where engineers are second to kings. Unfortunately, the UK is not one of them.

The facts

WS Atkins is looking to fill up to 60 posts with engineers relocated from New Zealand and Australia (NCE 9 November).

The number of engineering undergraduates as a percentage of the total has virtually halved from 11.5% to 5.8% in eleven years between 1988 and 1999.

62% of all professionally qualified engineers in the UK recommend engineering as a career to others - citing job satisfaction as the reason.

Only 44% of engineering graduates actually take up jobs in engineering, according to the Engineering Council.

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