If one section of the industry has suffered more than most during the economic downturn it would have to be the graduates. But things are changing. The mood in the industry is brightening, and enlightened firms are seeing the value in graduate recruitment.
Getting a job after university has become ever tougher of late, as more and more companies cut their graduate intakes to reflect falling workloads. Last year’s graduate cohort faced the toughest battle yet, with civil engineering employers reporting an average of 130 applications per vacancy.
Companies including AECOM, Amey, Costain, URS Scott Wilson and Bam Nuttall said applications had soared from an average of 48 per vacancy in 2010, driven by a sharp drop in vacancies. The figures, as revealed in the Association of Graduate Recruiter’s (AGR) Graduate Recruitment Survey 2011 Summer Review, found that civils contractors and consultants were expecting a 61% drop in vacancies, the second biggest drop across all sectors surveyed.
“We’re building a business for the long term and that kind of activity leads you to one place - recruiting graduates”
AGR surveyed 202 firms across all sectors, including 14 leading civil engineering contractors and consultants. AECOM was part of the survey, and admits that the numbers being recruited had dropped. “We did the analysis for both our business and across the industry and there is no doubt that the numbers had dropped,” says AECOM Europe chief executive Steve Morriss. “The ratios were going up to three figures for every role. It has been very difficult for graduates to find jobs, and I have a lot of sympathy for that.”
Road to recovery
But the worst could be over. Chancellor George Osborne’s Autumn Statement gave the industry a massive shot in the arm by putting investment in infrastructure firmly at the heart of his plan for economic recovery. His commitment to plough an extra £6.3bn into infrastructure now and bring in as much as £30bn extra in the medium term through pension fund investment brought great confidence to those in the industry wishing to invest for the long-term. AECOM certainly is looking to invest. “We’re building a business for the long-term and when you are looking to do that kind of activity it only leads you to one place - recruiting graduates,” says Morriss.
“Some areas of our business are still struggling, but we have a responsibilty. We feel that obligation very strongly”
“It may be a bold move but we have restored graduate recruitment to pre-recession levels,” he adds. For AECOM, that means an intake of around 150 out of 240 new recruits this year. It represents a more than twofold increase on last year’s intake of around 70. “That’s a pretty major investment but we have confidence in the long-term future. A failure to do this now will be regretted in the future,” he says.
Morriss also feels there is a collective responsibility for the industry’s biggest employers to act in the long term interests of the industry. “I came into this industry just before the 1980s recession and it felt bad for us then. But if anything I think it is worse now.
“I feel so sorry for graduates and it makes me really determined to play the longer game,” he says. “There is no doubt that some areas of our business are still struggling, but we have a responsibility to play a role here. We feel that obligation very strongly.”
Morriss adds that AECOM is able to take such a bold approach to graduate recruitment because many order books across the business are on the up. As with most large multi-national consultancies, AECOM has UK staff working on projects across the world, from Brazil to Saudi Arabia and Australia.
Creative and technical
But that doesn’t mean that graduates joining AECOM need to be ready to up sticks and head overseas at a moment’s notice – although there are plenty of opportunities for those that want that excitement. “What we need most is people with real creative and technical excellence,” he says. “That, together with the enthusiasm to go and apply that in any team they go in to, is what we are after. Yes, we are operating in global markets and can offer overseas work. But we are sensitive to the fact that everybody has different circumstances and wants different things.”
“In terms of attracting the best graduates, we have some great opportunities”
Nor is AECOM looking for specific niche skills. Its water, transportation, buildings and cost consulting businesses are all taking on new blood. “The demand really is spread pretty evenly,” says Morriss. “Clearly, there are a number of very large schemes in the UK that are there or thereabouts – Crossrail, High Speed 2 – and for us there are an awful lot of job opportunities in the UK.”
Eastern Europe, South America and the Middle East are also pretty hot for the firm right now.
It has just won a major transportation masterplanning deal in Kazakhstan, is working on the Rio de Janeiro Olympics programme and is seeing a boom in work in Qatar and Saudi Arabia. “In terms of attracting the best graduates, we have some great opportunities,” says Morriss.
Demand is high
So over to the graduates. Competition for places, despite the two-fold increase in intake, is still going to be fierce. “The reality is, if you cast your eye back to last year, we had nearly 7,000 applications across the board for 70 graduate jobs. Demand for civils graduates has been so down for the last two years specifically that last year we saw applicants from the previous year’s cohort and we are starting to see that again,” says AECOM talent acquisition manager Steve Rodgers. “Year on year on year the problem is getting bigger and we are anticipating high applicant levels again.”
With such high levels of applicants, AECOM is keen to make sure the best get a chance to stand out from the crowd. “We want the best graduates, and we want graduates to feel that they have had to do something to join AECOM. It is a big company, a quality company and so we are raising the bar on our recruitment process,” he says.
“bringing new, young, talented and inquisitive people into our teams raises all our games”
This improved process is needed not least because despite the competition, to Rodgers frustration, the standard of applications is not demonstrably increasing. “Some graduates are becoming more diligent with their applications, but not markedly so. So we are trying to take them down that road by building in more competency checks early in the process.” This means setting thought provoking questions in the application form to get beyond the basic CV type information. “We are going to be far more robust in the process from the start,” he says.
It’s going to be tougher, but AECOM is offering help on the way. Its annual graduate roadshow has seen it rock up at most of the traditional civil engineering universities. While there, special sessions advised on “employability skills” such as CV and application form writing and communication skills.
And in the long-term everyone wins. “We consistently find that bringing new, young, talented and inquisitive people into our teams raises all our games,” says Morriss. “It is very easy to underestimate the importance of doing this.”
The graduate experience
Elaine Carroll, graduate engineer, transportation, AECOM Europe. Studied civil and environmental engineering at University College Cork, Ireland
What does your job involve?
Currently my job involves working for a highways engineering team doing anything from drainage design for a highway scheme, to car park layout design and more.
Do you think your degree helped prepare you for that?
Most work in design offices is done on computers using software which we didn’t get taught how to use at university.
But I learned the background knowledge that helped me understand how this software works, such as the equations a programme uses. I think it’s important to understand how to design things yourself so you have a greater understanding of the software that can do a lot of it for you. Also, we had a lot of assignments in university and constant deadlines prepared me for the pressures of work.
What advice would you give to graduates looking to follow in your career footsteps?
I think work experience is the most important thing to help you decide if engineering is for you and what type of engineering you would like to do. Don’t worry about not knowing enough when you start; you will be surprised at how quickly you can learn new skills and how helpful everyone can be. It’s in their interest for you to become the best engineer you can be! The
Infrastructure 2012: Graduate jobs growing again