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Home grown opportunities

There is a general feeling of optimism within Northern Ireland's construction industry and, for the first time since possibly as far back as the 1950s, there are real opportunities for home grown graduates. Simple day to day realities like job vacancies in local papers and the sight of tower cranes indicate that prosperity is on the horizon.

A notable increase in affluence has become apparent over the last two to three years, with much of the existing property stock in Belfast being redeveloped and the arrival of new, highspecification office parks on the outskirts.

This regeneration can to some degree be attributed to the decline of traditional industries, such as shipbuilding, and a move towards services - attracting foreign investment from multinationals operating within the information technology and financial sectors.

Political stability will determine the levels of capital investment which, in turn, will determine long term growth for construction in the region. The shift from a centralised decision making system and the advent of the local assembly means that government funds are being channelled more effectively to the vital areas.

John Mulholland, past chairman of the ICE, describes the recent upturn in engineering work, particularly in water, wastewater and roads, as resulting from under-investment in Northern Ireland's infrastructure over the previous 20 years.

Yet current levels of infrastructure investment are significantly lower than those in the Republic of Ireland, which owes something to the fact that roads, railway and sewerage in the north were already of a comparatively high standard.

Employers in Northern Ireland face two significant issues.

First, the boom experienced by the Republic of Ireland's construction industry, according to Wendy Blundell, executive secretary of Northern Ireland for the ICE, 'continues to be a drain on resources in terms of young engineers'.

Although salaries may be comparable, when factoring in the exchange rate, engineers perceive the career progression opportunities in the Republic as superior, thanks to the sheer volume of work being undertaken and the rate at which construction firms are expanding.

The second issue facing empoyers in the north, is the outflow of potential graduates to higher paying professions. It is essential, therefore, not only that the number of students applying for engineering undergraduate courses increases, but that salaries are on a par with those offered by other industries.

The number of students enrolling on civil engineering degree courses at Queen's University in Belfast last year increased by 23% from 1999. The total number of graduates from the Faculty of Engineering in 2000 increased by 10% to 378 on the previous year.

Water is a fast developing sector here, thanks to EU quality directives requiring improvements in drinking water and urban wastewater treatment, and the need to meet the increased water usage brought about by new housing and commercial initiatives. The water service benefited from a capital investment programme of approximately £110M in 2000 and a projected increase is scheduled in 2001.

UK-based consultancy Montgomery Watson has recently established an alliance with local consultancy Kirk McClure Morton - a firm with extensive knowledge of Ireland's water industry. Simon Dickson, Northern Ireland framework manager, is leading the charge for Montgomery Watson within the region. He acknowledges that graduate engineers with two to three years' experience are the most difficult to find. He views Northern Ireland as a growth area for all sectors of construction, including transportation and waste management.

Kerry Greeves, principal engineer at Arup Belfast, says the division he recently established in the province will be looking to strengthen its team and broaden the range of services it provides in the next three to six months, within M&E, structures and civil works.

While understanding the importance of local knowledge, Arup Belfast will, Greeves says, be looking for a healthy mixture of staff from both Northern Ireland and abroad to attain the required specialist skills.

With firms such as Montgomery Watson and Arups opening their doors in Northern Ireland and local consultants steadily expanding, the fortunes of young engineers in the region appear, at long last, to have taken a turn for the better.

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