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Filling the gaps

Skills gaps are growing daily. Where will the engineers come from to fill them? Steve Turner reports.

Shortages of trained civil engineers are forcing employers to look at employing non-engineers for some work.

It is a trend which Bridget Ingram of recruitment specialist Anders Elite has noticed over recent months. She explains that the job market has switched from one controlled by the employers to one driven by the demands of employees - a complete reversal of the situation a decade ago.

Ingram says she is now providing engineering companies with people who were previously mathematicians, geographers or economists. These people, she says, are obviously numerate and so long as they can display an aptitude for picking up engineering skills on the job, they are being employed.

The trend is confirmed by Brown & Root director Danny Grand. He describes how the firm has recently taken on geographers to work in its project management teams.

However, this approach does not have the support of the whole industry. In particular, structural engineering firms maintain that only qualified structural engineers are accepted to perform engineering roles. In addition, companies are finding that large chunks of training budgets are being swallowed up getting non-qualified staff up to speed.

The philosophy also falls down when it comes to recruiting higher level staff. While it is relatively easy to train an engineer to do calculations or understand a code of practice, the complex interactions within the construction industry mean that at more senior levels employees need to be able to see the 'bigger picture'.

To free up valuable resources in the UK, work is increasingly being sub contracted overseas to low cost design centres.

However, at present, this tends to be limited to fairly straightforward design work. Some of the larger firms have found that sending more complex work to overseas sub-consultants requires a disproportionate amount of management time.

More commom, of late, however is the practice of recruiting engineers from abroad, although it is still seen primarily short term measure.

Antipodean engineers have long had a reputation for filling temporary positions in the UK, working typically six month stints before travelling in Europe on holiday.

Now Eastern Europe is producing some very capable engineers too - a fact recognised by WS Atkins technical director Bob Haywood. He points out that this trend goes against the traditional difficulties of attracting engineers from Europe. In the past they have been reluctant to move from a culture where engineers are held in a very high esteem to a country where they are not.

But, while not yet widespread, there is a feeling that unless current skills shortages are tackled in the UK, removal of trade and employment barriers in Europe means an increasing number of oversees engineers will be drawn to work in this country.

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