With a raft of UK tunnelling projects on the drawing board, there is a push to develop the skills to deliver them. Natalie Hardwick looks at how universities and firms are responding.
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Universities are constantly adapting and evolving to industry demands − and none are doing more to ensure future skills are developed than the University of Warwick. Together with the British Tunnelling Society (BTS) it has proposed a tunnelling postgraduate course to cater for the anticipated growing demand for skills in the industry.
Students who may eventually take up the course would learn about the intricacies of geology, mechanics and hydraulics, which are among the key subject areas required to work on tunnelling projects.
And with mega tunnelling schemes Crossrail and the London Tideway Tunnels high on the agenda, the course comes at a perfect time to address the skills shortage among graduates.
Warwick is well placed to be the base for such training. Its engineering school is one of the largest in the country and has a legacy of encouraging students to complete work placements and start career training early.
“As a professional engineer, I can see there is an obvious skills shortage in the tunnelling market.”
Colin Eddie, BTS
Tony Price is associate dean for teaching at Warwick’s engineering school and one of those responsible for getting the course off the starting blocks. “The idea for the course came when the BTS approached us,” says Price.
“They’ve wanted to set up an MSc for a while. We then worked together to put the business proposal through to the university.”
Along with assistant professor Klaus Richter, Price began to make the case that a postgraduate course in tunnelling would be advantageous for graduates wishing to specialise and for the growing tunnelling sector.
BTS training committee head Colin Eddie has spent 30 years as a tunnelling specialist for Morgan Est and was enthusiastic about working with Warwick staff.
“We approached Warwick as the facilities are excellent and it is a base from which to grow,” says Eddie. “As a professional engineer, I can see there is an obvious skills gap in the tunnelling market. With the Crossrail, Tideway Tunnels and National Grid Cable Tunnel projects, tunnelling is only going to get bigger and bigger.
“The demand for specially trained engineers is there and it’s likely to grow exponentially.
The right timing
Crossrail alone will employ 14,000 staff at the height of construction. “These won’t all be engineers but it gives you an idea of the scope of the tunnelling industry at the moment,” says Eddie.
Although the Tunnelling MSc is still in the teething stages, after a meeting last month, Warwick and the BTS are optimistic the course will be going ahead from September 2011.
But Price says it has not been easy persuading people to invest in the course. “Obviously during the current climate it is difficult to get the university to invest but we make a strong case,” he says. “And we’ve begun looking for companies to offer sponsorship.”
The BTS is among those offering bursaries to prospective students. “We fully endorse the course and several other companies have pledged to get involved including Morgan Est, Vinci and Underground Professional Services,” says Eddie.
Once the course is under way, the university and the BTS hope that it will attract passionate, talented engineers who may have floundered at the first hurdle since graduating, or who fancy a complete change in career direction.
“We’re hoping to attract civil engineers who can bring a civils perspective on concrete enforcement and concrete structures,” says Price. “I think the course will appeal to people in the UK and internationally.
“It’s also for people from a BEng background wanting to do a top-up year and for people already in the tunnelling industry who may want to get a masters.”
Eddie agrees that the course will have widespread appeal. “The great thing about the course is that it will have a conversion element to it,” he says. “So for instance, people with a mining qualification could apply, do the course, then work as a civil engineer. Also, since the course is an ICE-endorsed masters, it means people who graduate from it can become chartered.”
From a newly-qualified graduate’s perspective, the course offers a springboard into a growing, technically-demanding area of engineering.
Kate Cooksey graduated from Cardiff University in 2007 with an MEng combined with a year in industry. She is chair of the BTS Young Members Committee and knows all too well the pressures on newly qualified engineers.
“The good thing about the course is that there is nothing of its kind around”
Kate Cooksey, BTS
“The good thing about the course is that there’s nothing of its kind around,” she says. “There may be some courses that carry tunnelling modules, but the course is what we need to go that little bit further.
“There are now over 50 members providing information and guidance to other young engineers. Through newsletters and our website, we’ll be encouraging [members to take up] courses like the Tunnelling MSc at Warwick.
But when it comes to dealing with the tunnelling skills shortage, Warwick is not the only institution hoping to provide specialist vocational training.
Crossrail last year announced the opening of its pioneering Tunnelling Academy, which was established in partnership with TunnelSkills.
It will be the first purposebuilt institution of its kind and will provide the same kind of expertise offered at Warwick, only without the badge of a Masters.
Initially, places will only be available to people working on the Crossrail sites in London. However, it is hoped that with industry sponsorship, it will eventually be opened up to people from across the engineering sector.
So will these opportunities make a difference for disenchanted engineering students who anticipate entering an employment minefield?
Eddie says that the Warwick venture will mark the academic world’s acknowledgement that tunnelling is a massive growth area within the engineering sector. If graduates act fast, they can start the bandwagon going and become the first success stories.
“This is a buoyant time for [tunnelling] engineers. The job situation is only going to improve, especially when the market changes in two or three years’ time,” he says.
“We have great optimism for how the course will supply demand.”
Cooksey is also enthusiastic about the brightening horizon. She says specialist postgraduate courses are perfect for those who may enter into a BEng blind, with no idea which modules to take to reach their eventual goal.
And she adds some of her own advice: “Listen and find out what’s going on in the industry and try to make contacts; join the engineering society and do work experience in the summer. Make the most of every opportunity that’s given to you. If there isn’t an opportunity there − make it yourself.”