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While retaining staff might not yet be a problem for geotechnical companies, chances are it soon will be. Ground Engineering offers some advice.

As the industry-wide skills shortage continues to takes its toll on the geotechnics sector, employers are taking a variety of approaches to what looks set to become a major issue - that of retaining valuable, experienced staff.

Arup associate director Tim Chapman says an important first step to retaining staff 'is to make sure that you recruit people who actively want to do what you do as a company' Arup used to have a 'more severe problem' retaining staff a couple of years ago, he says, but it has worked hard to address the issue and staff retention has 'markedly' improved.

'Obviously people need to be competitively paid, and to work in good conditions, ' Chapman asserts, but an important factor in attracting and retaining staff is making sure that the work they do is interesting.

'Fortunately, most of our staff are very highly motivated by the type of varied work on large projects that we do.'

Offering variety in career terms is one way employers can keep staff satisfied and, hopefully, hold on to them for longer.

Bachy Soletanche business development manager Chris Thomas attributes his company's 'very low staff turnover' to the fact that it is sufficiently large to provide such variety.'Our staff tend to be mobile, and with our different divisions and areas of operation, we can provide sufficient variety to maintain motivation, ' he says.

Jim Beveridge, manager of Mott MacDonald's foundations and geotechnical group says the 'good mix' of UK and overseas work his company offers appeals to both prospective and existing employees.

He notes, however, that overseas opportunities for geotechnical engineers are fast disappearing in many countries thanks to the growing numbers of suitably qualified domestic graduates.

Beveridge adds that while staff retention has not been too bad recently, the company does recognise that some engineering staff in their early 30s are finding it difficult to buy property in the London area and are therefore requesting to be relocated elsewhere.

As Steve Branch, managing director of Geotechnical & Environmental Associates (GEA), points out, 'the salary differential between the South-east and other parts of the country is marginal if it exists at all, so a salary goes much further in, say, South Wales than it does in St Albans' Keller has recognised a 'slightly adverse trend' in staff retention levels, says personnel manager David Coomber. The company loses 15% a year.'We don't think that is too bad, but things are getting worse thanks to the general skills shortage in civil engineering.'

Keller is addressing the problem: 'What we do to retain staff is to train, promote or rotate them, either at home or abroad, ' Coomber explains.

He asserts that the desire for career variety - or opportunities for change - is the most important of three reasons people consider leaving their jobs. The others, he says, are domestic/geographical circumstances and and the pay and conditions 'package' Coomber says location is more important than ever, and companies need to be increasingly flexible on this front. 'In the old days young civil engineers would travel anywhere, but things are different now because many have working partners.' Keller tries to be flexible, he adds, 'and only 40% to 50% of employees now live close to our main operating offices' Keller offers flexible pay schemes and bonuses linked to divisional and company performance, but Coomber believes the benefit of pay increases as a retention aid is 'instant but short-lived' Steve Branch disagrees: 'I think that, like it or not, the level of salary is certainly one of the most important, if not the most important factor when it comes to retaining staff.'

He says GEA pays at or above general market rates then adds 'generous' profit-related bonuses. 'This makes people feel that the effort that they put in - and we expect them to put a lot in - will reap benefits.'

Branch warns, however, that a good salary will not compensate for a miserable working life.'We also give people as much responsibility as they can handle as early in their careers as possible, treat them with respect, aim to create an enjoyable working atmosphere which is helped by things like taking them to the pub for lunch once a week, and all go to the theatre, dinner and hotel once or twice a year.'

He adds that it is important staff feel they are making a contribution to the success of the company: 'We therefore keep everyone in touch with how the company is progressing and try to create a culture where everyone believes that what we do is as good as if not better than anyone else. I think it is also absolutely essential that the people in charge project enthusiasm and look as if they believe in what they are doing and are enjoying it.'

While Branch insists that retaining staff is not a problem for GEA at present, he is quick to add the proviso 'so far' as the skills shortage is not going to go away.

'We need to accept that we must train graduates or pay for them to do masters degrees, ' he says. 'We either need to take them on and then perhaps after a year or so put them on to a full-time or part-time course that we pay for, together with some basic expenses, or have some form of link-up with the universities.'

He suggests that universities offering 'strong masters degrees' should be encouraged to invite guest lecturers to speak to undergraduate geology and civils students 'to enthuse them

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