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Keith's point: the skills shortage - can the industry deliver?

There is no magic wand that will resolve the skills shortage overnight.

Keith Gabriel is chairman of Ground Forum

There is universal agreement within the ground engineering industry that we are facing an acute skills shortage. It is not a new problem but it is now more severe, in part because of the increase in industry workload. It now affects a wider cross-section of the industry with notable shortages of experienced technicians and plant operatives.

It is a welcome problem in as much that it reflects the very buoyant trading conditions for the construction industry, although it is causing very real project delivery challenges for consultants and contractors alike.

Several abnormally large UK projects are already on site, including the 2012 Olympics, Edinburgh tram project, East London Line, and Thameslink up-grade. With the announcement that Crossrail is to go ahead and the imminent re-building of the team to develop nuclear waste repositories, demand for ground engineering professionals and operatives will intensify.

Why has the skills shortage hit the ground engineering community so hard? First because, almost uniquely, ground engineering expertise is required for virtually all construction and building projects, and requires very specific skills.

Second because government policies have combined to significantly reduce the number of UK students taking masters degrees, which are highly desirable for most senior ground engineering professionals. The switch from student grants to student loans means graduates are less inclined to fund masters degrees owing to the size of their undergraduate loans. In addition, there has been a reduction of funding of masters degrees by research councils.

In 2001 recently chartered engineers and engineering geologists in their late 20s and early 30s were especially scarce because of the recession in the early 1990s, which resulted in minimal recruitment for a few years. Curiously, the most severe shortages still seem to apply to staff with the same level of experience. This time around it is the late 1990s dotcom boom and vigorous financial sector that have lured many civil engineering and geology graduates into finance and IT. Fortunately that trend has reversed, but not entirely.

Also, there are insufficient good UK graduates available to meet demand, especially for the geotechnical aspects of ground engineering.

Many soils and materials testing laboratories have struggled to recruit senior technicians or managers – there are virtually none available – and drilling operatives are in particularly short supply owing to the recent uptake of ground source heat pump technology. The shortage is exacerbated further by the ageing drilling community.

Two other factors have also contributed to the skills shortage. Some staff recently recruited from overseas do not have English as a first language. Some struggle with report writing skills and have advanced more slowly than would otherwise have been expected. That said, many excellent non-native English-speakers work in the industry without whom we would be struggling even more.

Also, for the past few years there has been a trend of increasing reluctance of younger employees to attend evening meetings and to commit the effort necessary to achieve chartered status. This trend needs to be reversed.

So how has the industry responded? Initially it was to recruit from overseas, with Australia and New Zealand favourite sources because English is their native language. But construction industries in those countries are now booming and both have started recruiting staff from the UK and so there is now a two-way flow of skills.

Many larger firms have recruited graduates and plant operatives from Europe and, more recently, east Europe. This has already had a significant impact on some local economies, to the extent that the Polish government has put on record concerns that it will not be able to deliver infrastructure for the Euro 2012 football tournament, owing to a shortage of construction workers.

In 2005, the Ground Forum lobbied the Home Office and succeeded in getting 16 geotechnical disciplines, including engineering geological and hydrogeological disciplines, added to the government's Skills Shortage Occupations List (GE August 2005 Talking Point). This considerably simplifies the process of obtaining visas for non-EU nationals and has been described by several team leaders in the profession as a "life saver".

This positive response from the Home Office stands out against the background of repeated refusal by the government to alter its policy of reducing funding for masters degree courses. We have been told repeatedly that industry must fund such training. This is unbelievably short-sighted. Yes, there has been an increase in industry funding, but very few companies are able and prepared to fund full-time masters degree courses for their staff.

The UK ground engineering skills base is currently being supported by overseas personnel. However, it is unsustainable in the medium to long term. As a result, there is a significant risk that in a few years the UK may find itself without sufficient competent ground engineering professionals to adequately maintain its infrastructure.

Chairman of the Trade and Industry Select Committee and also the Construction Industry Inquiry, Peter Luff MP, has acknowledged there is a real skills shortage. This welcome step needs to be converted into positive action by the government to assist industry.

There is no magic wand that will resolve the skills shortage overnight.

The industry must continue to tackle the challenge on several fronts. Employers have little option but to increase training provision to attract and retain good staff (many have already done so). While employees, especially early on in their career, must commit to continuing
professional development if they want employers to invest in their education and training.

Modern plant operative training schemes are needed to attract and retain school leavers into the industry. The Ground Forum, together with its constituent trade associations and learned societies, will continue to lobby government to recognise and support the significance of ground engineering expertise to the UK's construction industry, and to maintaining the country's infrastructure.

Can the industry deliver all current and foreseeable projects? The scale of the shortage is causing firms to turn away work. Unless action is taken by government as well as industry, there remains a distinct possibility that delivery of projects will be affected.

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