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Industry boom means worsening skills crisis

CIVILS 2000 - Skills shortage: For all the talk of military action in Afghanistan dragging Europe into recession, there are few real signs yet that it will hit construction. Andrew Mylius assesses where this leaves the engineering skills crisis.

Gloom for the world economy has been forecast often enough since 11 September.

And in the US it is fair to say that a downturn is starting to grip.

However, in the UK things still seem relatively normal, thanks, many market analysts believe, to the Chancellor Gordon Brown's remodelling of the economy to protect it from recession.

And despite signs that the runaway demand for housing seen in the last couple of years is levelling off, civils workload in particular remains high with order books still looking healthy.

All this makes the prospects of a natural solution being found to the construction industry skills shortage that much less likely. It is clear that the boom bust cycles of the past have been sufficiently eroded to almost permanently level demand.

For over two years NCE has been reporting on the obvious shortage of suitably qualified and experienced engineers coming into the industry, and on the migration of skilled personnel to other professions. And the situation is worsening.

Last summer, Imperial College soil mechanics course leader Richard Jardine described the problems contributing to falling recruitment as 'tediously' familiar (NCE 28 June). He cited poor public image, lowly professional status, shocking pay and a falling national interest in the physical sciences, and predicted then that few if any engineering departments would survive beyond 2007.

Meanwhile, employers are bemoaning the dearth of suitable graduate and postgraduate employees. In recent months experts in the water, road, railways and nuclear energy sectors have all said that, without the rapid injection of suitably equipped personnel, consultants and contractors will fail to cope with future workload.

They will be forced to pay existing staff higher wages in a bid to squeeze out higher levels of productivity, or to lure staff from other parts of the industry with financial incentives.

Either way, clients have been warned that fees and costs are likely to rise.

Incoming ICE president Mark Whitby, talking to NCE this week, highlighted the problem.

'The meltdown in science and education in this country has major implications for our society, ' he said. 'We need to be screaming at the government and embarrassing it about it.'

But he also said that the industry had much to face up to itself when dealing with the problems.

'The construction industry does not interact with people at school or at university and then it expects them to come and work with them.'

There is almost universal agreement that better pay would do much to attract new blood to the profession and help retain those who feel undervalued.

But is more cash enough?

With more employers looking to train graduates straight from their first degrees rather than take on postgrads, what value education? And how about company cars, healthcare, pensions, maternity and paternity leave, creches, working hours, holiday entitlements, location or the physical environment you work in? How important are colleagues, relationships with managers, opportunities for career development, training or CPD?

In the run-up to the Civils 2002 exhibition in Birmingham next June, NCE wants to know what you think needs to be done.

The questionnaire opposite will help us to paint a picture of the crisis in the industry, and what might be done to turn it around.

Findings will be published on 13 December. They will be followed in 2002 with feedback from specific sections of the civil engineering industry - from consultants, contractors, clients, schools and universities.

The focus on skills will climax with three live debates at the show concentrating on pay, training and retention.

To have your say simply fill in the questionnaire and help the industry find its way to success.

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