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Geotechnical survey shows plenty of work, but skills shortage is biting


LOW PROFIT margins and a lack of investment in training are behind the skills shortage affecting the UK geotechnical industry, according to a Ground Engineering survey.

Many firms confirmed they are finding it increasingly difficult to employ suitably qualified and experienced engineers, with more than a third of companies responding identifying the skills shortage as a major issue.

'Profit margins are further eroding staff recruitment and retention, ' said one.'Poor profits in ground investigation and loss of staff to other professions is because of poor pay and conditions, ' said another.

Respondents also expressed concern over the lack of funding for MSc courses (GE April 2001) and continuing professional development (CPD), with investment levels continuing to fall. Industry is concerned that the research and training base in geotechnics and engineering geology is being lost.

The survey was carried out as part of GE's annual UK Geotechnical Services File, published this month. More than 700 questionnaires were sent out to consultants, contractors, manufacturers and suppliers active in UK geotechnics, using GE's extensive database. More than half of those sent a questionnaire responded.

Outlook is positive, particularly through public and private spending and infrastructure investment, with 61% of companies expecting an increase in staff numbers (compared with 58% last year) and 79% predicting workload to rise (76% last year). None of the respondents predicted a fall in the amount of work, compared with 1% last year.

Overall, the geotechnical industry appears to be in a healthy state.Based on replies, 6,600 people are employed in the UK industry (compared with 5,800 last year). The total number of staff, geotechnical and non-geotechnical, employed by respondents amounts to more than 61,000, in a sector estimated to be worth over £1.1bn.

But there still appears to be a lack of understanding by clients of the importance of the value of quality geotechnics, especially in site investigation, where a 'price versus quality' mentality remains. '[There is] insufficient client commitment to carrying out and paying for coherent and adequate ground investigation, ' said one contractor.

However, others blamed site investigation firms for the continuing problem.'[There is] still too much poor quality site investigation - when is the site investigation industry going to sort itself out?' one consultant asked.

More positively, the environmental sector continues to grow, with increased brownfield redevelopment. However, firms are still concerned about inconsistency in the interpretation of legislation and guidelines by regulators and the lack of a coherent framework for geoenvironmental standards for contaminated land. And clients are often not aware of the implications of Part IIa of the Environmental Protection Act.

Technically, there appears to be a rise in the use of reinforced soil and environmentally sustainable techniques including bio-engineering. Electronic communication and data transfer show that the use of IT in the industry continues to grow.

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