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Heading for extinction?

Cover story Municipal skills shortages

Civil engineers are deserting local authorities. Damian Arnold talked to some of the last remaining municipal engineers about how to save their once eminent profession.

THIS YEAR'S exodus of civil engineers from local authorities has brought the municipal engineer to the brink of extinction.

The haemorrhaging of staff from local government revealed in a recent Audit Commission report is sounding the death knell for a type of engineer once the most powerful and celebrated representative of his profession (NCE 19 September).

The cigar toting, chauffeur driven, all powerful borough engineer of yore may be gone forever but the foot soldiers that remain are vanishing in a puff of smoke and with them 'vital' technical nous.

The profession is 'teetering on the edge, ' according to Hampshire County Council's county surveyor John Ekins, who is about to retire and be replaced by a planner.

Municipal engineers who spoke to NCE give the profession five years to save itself before it dies. It needs to reverse a trend that has seen people from other disciplines such as marketing, transport planning and environmental health reach the summit of county and urban environment directorates. These professions rather than engineers seem to have come to the fore as facilitators for the politicians who must work out policies on issues ranging from transport planning to road maintenance.

The fear is that with engineering work increasingly carried out by private consultants under partnering agreements, councils are losing in-house engineering expertise, which will tell them whether or not these contractors are doing a good job.

But all is not lost. The solution championed by ICE president Mark Whitby is for municipal engineers to reclaim the stature that is rightfully theirs by refashioning themselves as saviours of the urban environment - 'community engineers' or 'engineers of the public realm'.

Civil engineers could flock back to local authorities in their droves if they could convince local politicians that they are the people to deliver the urban regeneration so desperately needed in many UK towns and cities and on which the politicians' votes depend.

Engineers have the skills to deliver but must change the growing perception that they have become narrow specialists, municipal engineers told NCE.

The powers that be on local authorities too often see them as nerdy technocrats without the wider project management and communication skills to transform the UK's towns and cities into the pleasant, safe, uncongested public areas so wistfully presented on many a powerpoint presentation.

As a start, the name of the Association of Municipal Engineers is likely to be changed to a 'catchier' title such as Association of Neighbourhood Engineers at a meeting next month.

This is to promote the capability of municipal engineers to head up multi-disciplinary projects.

Sadly, great opportunities for engineers to come into local government at senior level are not being taken up, says Douglas Pigg of consultant White Young Green, who recently retired as director of development services at South Tyneside Borough Council.

Pigg claims engineers are needed in senior positions to deliver the integrated transport strategies that have now been framed up.

For the last five years environment and transport directorates have focused on strategy as they got to grips with policies that would net government cash through their local transport plans. This phase, which has played into the hands of other disciplines more used to consulting with the public, is coming to an end, he says.

Now the onus is on delivery and engineers should be pushing themselves to head up departments to do this work. 'Local authorities have evolved to needing people who can deliver the outcomes of the new policies, ' Pigg says. 'Engineers could come into their own in the next three to four years. There is a huge opportunity for engineers in the private sector to move into senior local government positions.'

Fighting talk amid the gloom is refreshing but the reality is still grim, says ICE past president David Green who is a former director of works at Sheffield City Council. Over the years municipal engineers have been 'ghettoised' into a particular area of transportation or contaminated land and are therefore perceived as poor communicators not being able to 'think outside the box', he says. Once integrated departments where graduates could join and get a taste for several disciplines have been splintered into sub departments. These have trapped engineers, making it difficult for them to gain the experience they need to become chartered.

'This has made engineers seem like backroom boys, ' says Green. 'They don't shine before the elected members and can't make the transition towards general management later in their careers. Many engineers find it difficult to move into that sort of role because of a lack of multi disciplinary experience.'

The senior engineers remaining on local authorities have got to stand up and be counted and encourage junior engineers into senior project management roles, he urges.

The move from a cosy number in a consultant's office is a wrench but horizons could open up if you have the guts to do it, claims Pigg. 'The political world of a local authority would worry a lot of engineers who are used to a focussed, brief driven world.

There is a lot of uncertainty at local authorities but you have the power to change things that you can't get anywhere else.

Poor prospects and dwindling status

The municipal engineering profession is shrinking at both ends. Hardly any graduates are coming through and the vanguard heading up departments is retiring fast.

From the youngà 'I don't think there is a big future for young people in municipal engineering.' This is the sad indictment from ICE past president and former municipal engineer David Green.

Why? 'There is no longer an obvious structure towards positions like city engineer or county surveyor via stepping stones such as assistant, senior and principal engineer, ' he says.

This made it easier for engineers to move upwards from one authority to another. Instead, environment and transportation directorates have developed their own structures that are harder to infiltrate.

Training for engineering recruits is not varied enough any more, adds Green. 'Very little training is done at local authorities now, ' he says. 'There is not enough interesting work for graduates.

'Hardly any authority has a structural design department left.

It's all transportation and highway design.'

These failures have hardly endeared municipal engineering to the dwindling number of civil engineering graduates who can move into higher paying jobs in the private sector.

Salary progression is still slow in the public sector. 'Starting salaries for graduate engineers at local authorities have gone up but not as fast as at consultants, ' says CSS president David Harvey. As a result engineers are hard to attract for all but the wealthier public bodies - such as Transport for London - which can afford to pay higher wages.

'There is a severe shortage of junior engineers and technicians at local authorities especially in areas such as traffic calming, ' adds Harvey.

To the oldà

Municipal engineering has become less eminent as many of the senior heads of environment and transportation directorates retire to be replaced by non-engineers (NCE 19 September). 'Within the last 12 months it has become clear that there is not the experience within local authorities to replace people that naturally retire through age, ' says AME president John Saunders.

Retirements this year, such as John Ekins at Hampshire and Douglas Pigg at South Tyneside plus Saunders himself at Essex, are continuing a trend that has been going on for 10 years. 'In the last five or 10 years a lot of engineers were retired early as part of a trend to reduce salary bills and reorganise senior posts, and we have lost vital experience, ' says director of consultant TPI Terry Mulroy, who used to work at Shrewsbury.

Those who are riding into the sunset will not regret leaving behind the red tape that has piled onto desks in ever rising stacks in recent years. Proving that projects fit the criteria of the Best Value regime, under which bids for contracts are assessed by a wider set of performance indicators than lowest price, has often become 'pointlessly bureaucratic', says Hampshire County Council county surveyor John Ekins.

Impact on roads Historic underfunding in road maintenance has left councils unable to staff up to deliver the influx of capital projects on the table.

'In some authorities engineers have insufficient resources even to supervise consultants, ' says the ICE's local government expert Robert Huxford.

And the work for them to do has risen considerably, he added. 'Increased public consultation demands more and more man hours, with up to half of some project budgets spent on this exercise. This causes delays and extra costs putting even greater pressure on staff.'

Civil Engineering Contractors Association spokesman Jim Turner agrees: 'With the roads sector having been run down in the past it is now proving very difficult for these municipal engineering teams to rebuild.'

Local authorities have failed to react as quickly as the private sector to salary changes in response to the industry skills shortage because of the need to retain pay parity among all council services.

Meanwhile, road maintenance and improvement schemes integral to the government's 10 year plan are lagging seriously behind.

'Where this lack of expertise is taking effect hardest is in the slow delivery of improvement schemes, ' says Turner.

At least the morale of the engineers that have not jumped ship has been boosted by the extra government cash filtering through to local authorities, says Asphalt Industry Alliance chairman Jim Crick. 'Some engineers are even smiling again, ' he says.

Alan Sparks

The way they were

A municipal engineer can be defined as is someone who provides, manages and maintains the setting for life in cities, towns and villages. Such engineers have been a dynamic presence in British public life since the mid 19th century.

The Association of Municipal Engineers was formed in 1873 because the sanitary engineers and surveyors that had evolved, following legislation such as the Public Health Act of 1848, felt they needed a voice to represent them to the politicians.

Lewis Angell, surveyor for what was West Ham council in London, formed the association to draw attention to the need for surveyors to be protected if they were to carry out their duties 'according to principle and not policy'.

Nearly 130 years on, ICE director of engineering and an authority on local government Robert Huxford says that the situation has come full circle.

Once again politicians dominate decision making at local authorities in areas that should be left to engineers.

'Engineers formed the AME because they wanted their professional opinions to be heeded and not compromised by political expediency, ' he says. 'Many engineers are concerned that this situation is now repeating itself.'

Municipal benefits offset poor salaries NCE's recruitment pages show how local authorities are fighting to attract staff by highlighting benefits many private firms cannot match.

Salaries at local authorities may be lower but prospective employees are urged to consider the less obvious positives in the package like council pension schemes, free health club membership and generous child care subsidies.

'Child care can be a major cost, ' says Cambridge City Council engineering manager Graham Lowe. 'As a result it can be touch and go whether it is worth both parents coming back to the workplace.'

Subsidies like those offered by Cambridge give support to engineers who are starting to question their work/ life decisions because they want to work and still see their children grow up. The city council also offers free swimming at the municipal pool and, like most councils, a much coveted final salary pension scheme.

Quality of life is also a big selling point for many local authorities. Most offer flexitime that allows parents to work around school hours, and for those without children to avoid rage inducing traffic jams.

Under a typical flexitime scheme staff work core hours between 10am-12pm and 2.30pm-4pm, Lowe explains.

Other hours are negotiable as long as they tally up to 37 hours week. Working hours can also be converted into time off to add to already generous council holiday allowances.

Pembrokeshire County Council is selling the idea of a holiday all year round by playing on its outstanding natural beauty. A recent advertisement in NCE showed several families playing happily on a beautiful beach.

'Our recruitment office has been pushing the quality of life angle down here, ' says one of its highway engineers. 'Not everyone wants to work in the city, and here we have the beaches and national parks.

'It's what's important to you personally. In the cities you get high salaries but a poorer quality of life. Here it's the other way around.' He admits a higher salary once tempted him to apply for a job in Hammersmith, London. 'As I was waiting to find out if I'd got the job I looked out of the window towards the Hammersmith Flyover and thought, 'What the hell am I doing here'.' He swiftly returned to the beach.

Other local authority ads rave about the variety of work on offer. York, for example, talks of the upkeep of its 'historic Roman roads' and 'exciting schemes you would expect from one of Europe's biggest regeneration projects'.

And perhaps football fans would appreciate the chance to help regenerate Wembley for Brent Borough Council.

Nina Lovelace

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