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How to beat the skill shortage

Short of engineers? Chances are most consultants and contractors are as the industry gears up for a step change in infrastructure spending. This week Mark Hansford looks at the top ten ways to beat the skill shortage.

The Construction Industry Training Board predicts that Britain's construction industry needs to attract 370,000 new recruits over the next five years to keep up with demand.

This means taking on 74,000 every year, of which 64,000 will be required simply to replace existing manpower leaving the industry.

A survey by the Association of Consulting Engineers has found 95% of companies face problems recruiting and retaining experienced staff and that 80% cannot recruit enough graduates.

The problem traces back to university where, despite a 9% increase in applications between 1994 and 1999 for university places overall, applications to civil engineering courses fell a massive 40%.

So where are the engineers to come from and what is going to make them stay?

Respect and retain the engineers you have got The second biggest reason given by graduates for leaving the industry and for undergraduates not joining it is the lack of respect they are shown.

'Employers have to reward good staff properly and provide them with good opportunities to develop and progress. There remains something of a 'time serving' culture within the profession, which must be overcome, ' explained the ICE's graduates and students national committee.

Improving the standard of training mentoring would be a start, with more encouragement and more willingness to give appropriate experience to help trainees develop.

Training agreements must not be considered as incidental in the early years of an engineer's career - employers must realise how important it is to the individual to achieve their professional qualification as early as possible and help them Money It may be an old chestnut, but pay remains the number one concern.

Engineering Council figures put a chartered civil engineer's average salary of £39,925 bottom of all engineers and £12,000 less than the top earning chemical engineers. So the answer is simple, isn't it?

It seems not. Construction is notorious for its low profit margins, which explains why there is a reluctance to increase salaries.

The industry view is that the lead has to come from Government clients awarding more contracts on quality not price.

However, the bottom line on the payslip is not necessarily the bottom line overall. Hand in hand with pay comes working conditions.

There is a general feeling among civil engineering undergraduates that a career in construction will mean working 50% more for 50% less and forever being shipped from one site to another.

Contractor Carillion realises this and now offers a graduate package which includes up to £6,000 in subsistence allowances, tipping them over the £20,000 mark.

Is this the future?

Offer golden hellos to graduates A recent MORI poll of 1,100 students found that they expect to owe an average of £7,026 by the time they finish studying.

As a result, offering graduates a hefty golden hello appears to be an attractive prospect. But graduates and students are unconvinced: 'This is a nice idea to attract engineer graduates into the profession, ' says the GSNC. 'But it will do nothing about the number of people deserting the profession after only a few years.

'Such moves would also have to be balanced with improved conditions for everyone else.'

Use engineers as engineers In a throwback to business practice of yesteryear, many consultants are realising the need to maximise the engineering input of their engineers and are recruiting nonengineers for administration and report writing.

Taken further, as engineering skills become even more precious, more fundamental aspects of the engineer's job such as project managment and communicating with the public could also be out sourced.

Those in favour of such moves argue that engineers cannot manage and cannot communicate and should not be tackling these roles anyway.

Others argue that such moves would only serve to increase the drift of young, career driven, engineers into management positions outside the profession.

'We need to retain the best staff in engineering and help them reach the top of our profession - as managers, ' explains the GSNC.

'Where they have the ability, engineers should be encouraged and trained specifically in management skills.'

Move design work overseas With e-mail and the internet bringing the world ever closer, many companies are shifting the more labour intensive aspects of design to overseas offices, where staff are cheap and abundant.

Again the GSNC feels strongly about the ethics: 'You can get work done at a quarter of the price in India, but why is it so cheap?

'Are companies just bypassing social legislation in the UK such as the minimum wage? It may make sound business sense, but it maintains the difference between first and third world countries while doing nothing to resolve the long term problems of the profession in the UK.'

Recruit school leavers rather than graduates Balfour Beatty Rail is recruiting budding engineers straight from school and helping them gain their technical expertise from vocational qualifications.

The idea is backed by the Construction Confederation, which has led calls for the vocational route to receive Head hunt from rival organisations Head hunting has been standard business practice in many industries for years and is particularly common where experienced and specialist staff are concerned.

Hyder Consulting hit the headlines recently when its special structures team moved virtually en masse to Maunsell.

For the individual company it makes sound financial sense, providing a quick and effective way of boosting expertise. But it does nothing to solve the UK's overall engineering skills malaise.

Recruit from overseas An extension of the head hunting policy is to look abroad for staff. WS Atkins, for instance, plans to recruit from Australia.

But is this a long term solution or a quick fix? Ed Walker, an Australian engineer who spent two years working in the UK, can see both sides of the arguments.

'We are a much smaller market, so the great advantage of working in the UK is that you get exposed to higher end engineering much earlier in your career.

'There are good opportunities, but the downside is that you become a lot more specialised because the market dictates that you need to.

'I would rather be an engineer in Australia than the UK, but working in the UK looks good on the CV.'

There are also ethical issues involved. Recruiting from abroad means taking on skilled people from developing regions in Asia and Africa which need to keep their home grown engineers.

'The skills shortage is worldwide and we must be aware of our responsibilities.

We cannot just take the best people because we can afford to, ' explained a GSNC Treat your staff equally The industry's traditionally macho, bullish, sexist and racist image is a major deterrent for a vast pool of potential civil engineers, according to Michelle McDowell of the ICE's equal opportunities forum.

Women make up less than 5% of ICE membership. For ethnic minorities the situation is worse, highlighted by the recent attack on the industry from the Commission for Racial Equality.

McDowell believes that flexible working conditions would make the industry much more attractive to women and would encourage those with children back into the industry much sooner.

A strong business case exists, claims McDowell, with the cost of recruitment and training far outweighing the costs involved with flexible working practices.

McDowell also believes such practices should be used to entice retired engineers back in to the industry as a short term solution.

Work with the universities Each engineering firm needs to take an increasing number of graduates from a decreasing pool.

One solution is to get involved with the universities, providing sponsorship and, in some cases, seconded teaching staff.

This helps raise an employer's profile while providing graduates with the skills relevant to its needs.

For example, Gibb Rail is providing lecturers to teach a rail module to civils students at Leeds University.

To a lesser extent, many companies are providing sponsorship in exchange for some input into course content.

Loughborough University has a raft of industry sponsorship for its construction engineering management and commercial engineering management and quantity surveying courses. This is available even if prospective students are training to become project managers and not engineers. But there is no sponsorship of its civil engineering course.

Meanwhile Surrey University's ICE backed scholarship program has an even mix of consultants and contractors in its portfolio of 12 companies, which provide 20 students with sponsorship.

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