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Geotechnics' image problem is exacerbating skills shortage

GEOTECHNICS MUST improve its image to encourage young people to enter the industry and to retain senior staff, according to a Ground Engineering survey.

'There is an urgent need to impress on society the role of engineering and its importance as a career, ' said one respondent.

This is thought to be one of the reasons behind the continuing skills shortage affecting UK geotechnics, with over 40% of respondents saying they were still struggling to recruit.

'There is a lack of skilled personnel at all levels, ' said one.

Falling numbers of civil engineering students and graduates entering the profession as a whole is exacerbating the problem.

While graduate salaries have risen over the last couple of years, they still struggle to match those in the City. Retaining senior staff is also difficult: there is a perception that their salaries have risen less than those for graduates.

The survey was carried out for GE's annual Geotechnical Services File , published this month. More than 350 consultants, contractors, institutions, manufacturers and suppliers replied.

Respondents employ over 5800 geotechnical staff and nearly 52,000 in total, generating a turnover from geotechnical work of £606M.

It is not all doom and gloom.

Geotechnical work levels remain high and on the whole clients' attitudes towards geotechnics appear to have improved.

'Clients are becoming better informed, ' said one respondent.

Another thought there was more focus 'on what adds value from a geotechnical point of view'.

Things look set to continue to improve, with the market 'getting busier': 62% of respondents expect staff numbers to rise over the next 12 months, matching a 77% increase in workload.

However, 36% of firms expect staff levels to remain static and 1% predict a fall in employee numbers (undoubtedly a result of the skills shortage), with 22% saying workload will be constant or will drop by 1%.

Environmental considerations and sustainable construction are increasingly important to geotechnical firms and their clients.

With more contaminated sites earmarked for development, insitu remediation and techniques such as soil displacement piles are coming into their own.

Partnering, joint ventures, framework agreements and design and build contracts are fast becoming the norm, which is leading to early involvement of geotechnical expertise.

Some problems remain. Respondents complain of low fees, tight margins and short lead-in times, compounded by a sharp rise in insurance premiums, putting further financial strain on contractors.

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