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Engineering must clear the path for bright new talent

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Civil engineering graduates are in demand. Average salaries have increased by more than 10% in the South East and ahead of inflation elsewhere. But let's face it, they are still pathetic. The recent Association of Graduate Recruiters survey which suggested that engineering graduates can look forward to a starting salary of £19,000 would have raised a hollow laugh with most new entrants to the profession.

Salaries of between £13,000 and £15,000 are the norm, which for graduates carrying a student debt of £5,000 means a civil engineering career is a very unattractive option from the word go. Some firms recognise that in a tight jobs market they need to pay for the best. One contractor at Thursday's ICE Annual Dinner claimed to be offering graduates £19,000 and a car ( . . . send me an e-mail, I'll let you know). But most firms are sticking to paying peanuts.

Some do it because they're tight, others because they're incompetently managed, yet more because their margins are virtually non-existent. Most do it because of the demographics of their workforce.

The ideal demographic for most companies is a pyramid shape, with the largest number of employees in the 20-30 age range bringing new ideas and energy to the organisation. The best are accelerated quickly into the next tier of middle managers, with the others seeking their futures elsewhere, and then the process is repeated to identify senior managers. Some 'specialists' are removed from the management ladder, but receive enhanced financial rewards, and more importantly the opportunity to indulge their passion.

The demographic in many civil engineering firms is different, with the bulge coming at the ages 35-45. There are many reasons for this, including: the 44% drop in those studying civil engineering, an unwillingness to give young engineers responsibility (see Debate, page 17), ill-defined career progression strategies, increasingly poor salaries in relation to other professions and a well intentioned, but dangerous unwillingness to lose staff who have nothing more to contribute.

The result is that many firms have an overstuffed layer of middle ranking staff whose salaries - although relatively modest - significantly increase costs, providing yet another powerful argument for not boosting wages further down the career ladder. These 35-45 year olds also occupy most of the management positions that the brightest younger engineers aspire to. Finally, this 'treacle layer' can prove impervious to new ways of working or any changes which might threaten their way of life.

Not that many find this way of life enticing. The sheer number of 35- 45 year olds in civil engineering means that many find themselves doing the same jobs (and receiving the same rewards) they did ten years ago.

Beyond a large chunk of the 35-45 age group volunteering to seek alternative careers it's hard to see a total solution. Enlightened firms must identify the best of the new intake and fast track them through and past the treacle layer. They must also look after the best of the 35-45 age group because they will be highly valuable in 10-15 years time when the demographic shape of the profession changes and there is a shortage of experienced staff.

Alastair McLellan is editor of NCE.

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