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Out of recession

Global demand for geotechnical engineers from the UK is rising, pushing up salaries and improving job prospects. Ruby Kiching reports.

Recession? What recession? Ground investigation work for overseas mining, energy and rail projects, as well as New Zealand Christchurch rebuild and the UK’s rail projects are offering a wealth of job opportunities for geotechnical engineers.

It’s a good time to be specialised in ground engineering, says recruitment consultant Simon Girling. Vacancies for all levels of expertise are up 50% compared to this time last year, despite the recession.

“The international market has always been good, but the UK too is on the up. There’s Crossrail and HS2, and residential developers are just getting busy again, so geotechnical engineers are in high demand,” says Girling.

The more experienced the engineer, he adds, the greater the demand.

Major consultants are also reporting bulging overseas order books and need geotechnical engineers to work on oil, gas and mining projects all over the world, as well as domestic and Middle East rail projects.

Atkins managing director of ground engineering David French reports a 20% increase in staff numbers since September last year and 50 outstanding vacancies in his department alone.

He adds that the next round of AMP spending in the water sector is also yielding more work, as are offshore wind turbines and their related onshore infrastructure. “Once you take the global situation into account, it feels [like a] very stable [workload].”

Engineering geologists, geotechnical engineers and tunnelling engineers are required across the board.

Engineering geologists, he says, are generally working in the field very closely with clients to “read” the ground, often in remote locations. They assess geohazards such as the potential for ground collapse. Geotechnical engineers are needed for foundation design, and in places like Angola this involves analysing challenging ground conditions, ranging from collapsing sand to shrinking and swelling clays.

“That’s the interesting thing about the international work - you get to experience all types of soils and hazards,” says French.

25% geotechnics work growth

Australian based consultant SKM is also reporting a 25% growth in geotechnics work compared to last year. UK trained geotechnical engineers are in high demand because they are considered to have a very wide knowledge base, with the ability to think broadly, says SKM geotechnics global services leader Mark Thorn.

He adds that New Zealand is also luring a number of geotechnical engineers to help rebuild Christchurch following last year’s earthquake.

“New Zealand is competing with the rest of the world [for skilled resources] and is spending billions of dollars to rebuild Christchurch.

“We’re talking about a sizeable capital investment for a number of years which can’t be supported locally alone.”

Until now, work has focussed on ground investigations and prioritising and categorising work. “We’re now getting into the next phase of clearing the land to rebuild,” says Thorn.

Not surprisingly then, with so much work around, consultants are scrambling to recruit the relatively few specialist geotechnical engineers on the market.

But skewing the UK market, are the salaries, which are up to two and a half times the UK norm, being offered by oil, gas and mining companies in countries such as Australia.

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