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The geotechnical sector has never had it so good. Paul Wheeler reports.

Judging by the responses to Ground Engineering's 'state of the nation questionnaire' in March, the geotechnical sector has never had it so good - or at least not for a very long time.

Workload is high, often very high, and salaries are up. As Card Geotechnics director Geoff Card says: 'Does the industry need improvement? It seems fine to me - business is booming for contractors and consultants in UK and overseas.'

The industry is certainly in better shape than two years ago, the last time this survey was carried out.At that time the world was still trying to make sense of the effects of 9/11 and engineers said they were at best 'reasonably or cautiously optimistic'Two years down the line, that optimism appears justified.

Even the perennial bugbears of skills shortages and the quality of site investigation have been pushed down the agenda. Only a few companies cited either as the main challenges facing the industry. In previous years, responses were overwhelmingly focused on these two issues.

That said, no companies from the site investigation contracting sector responded to our questionnaire - unlike consultants and foundation contractors, among whom the response rate was very high.

Of the 15 companies that responded, all but one is expecting this year's turnover to be higher than last year's. The rest are making hay, and report workloads to be 'very busy''heavy, up on last year' and 'good, up from last year.'

A couple of foundation contractors sounded a note of caution, pointing to a possible slowdown in new orders in March. But small consultants in particular are very busy, citing workloads double and even up to four times greater than last year.

In response to a question on staff levels, of 14 respondents five (all contractors) said they had the right level of staff; a further five (a mix of large consultants and contractors) said they were 'not desperate, but keen to recruit'; while four organisations said they were very overstretched.

The problem is most acute among small consultancies and geotechnical specialists, as might be expected with their high workload.

Geoff Card says he has people working seven days a week to meet deadlines.

Steve Branch, managing director of Geotechnical & Environmental Associates, which has eight engineers, adds: 'We are small, so we get busy quickly, but we could probably double our size in the next year if the right staff were available.'

But as Yeandle Geotechnical director Pete Arnold puts it: 'Having a technical staff of six, employing an extra person is not taken lightly, but we are beyond the work limit which can be satisfactorily achieved by our staff.'

Larger consultants appear better off. Mott MacDonald geotechnical director Jim Beveridge says he is 'keen to recruit extra people but staffing levels are comparable with others in the industry' Arup associate director Tim Chapman says the firm has a good staff balance in London, but is short of staff in many of its regional offices.

Most contractors report having 'sufficient' engineering staff or being 'reasonably well staffed' although a couple pointed out that with an ageing site workforce, finding experienced site employees is becoming critical.

Building work remains the main growth area for many small and medium size consultants and contractors. Housing is particularly busy, as are retail and commercial developments.

Contaminated land work remains buoyant, although Geoff Card reports a swing from environmental - the big growth area of the last decade - to geotechnical work. 'For the current year geotechnical workload is about 60% of our business and the rest is environmental. This is a swing from say 18 months ago when the situation was reversed.'

He adds that 'building development is the driving force of our workload' He believes his consultancy is benefiting from growing with its clients.

'Traditional housebuilders and civil contractors we have worked with in the 1980s and 1990s are today's national developers taking on large regeneration mixed development projects with a high level of geotechnical engineering input, such as deep basements, heavy foundations, land reclamation and ground improvement, ' Card says.

Niche techniques are faring well too. Keller business development director Martyn Singleton says the grouting and minipiling sectors are busy, along with ground improvement for new-build and slope support.

Chris Jenner of geosynthetics manufacturer and supplier Tensar says: 'Overall our business is coming from a variety of sources such as windfarms, commercial and retail outlets, railways and new road schemes that are starting to come on line.'

Larger consultants such as Mott MacDonald and Arup report growth in infrastructure design and build projects and infrastructure asset management.

'We are doing more work on assets - particularly maintenance, renewal and protection of railway assets, ' says Tim Chapman. 'Our tunnelling team has also been successful in winning quite a range of international work.While a few of our niche areas of geotechnical design are less busy, we are benefiting from a fresh upsurge in London office building.'

He adds: 'Last year we were more dependent on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link project, while this year our work spread is more diverse.'

Bachy Soletanche will also be hit by reduced turnover on CTRL and its work on Heathrow Terminal 5 is also coming to an end. Because of its heavy involvement in these projects the company had an exceptional year in 2003. Now, according to managing director Martin Pratt, it will be 'targeting better regional core business coverage and a higher specialist works turnover on smaller projects' What would most improve the geotechnical industry?

'Some legal backbone to geotechnical engineering, eg all projects to have some geotechnical input (as is the practice in Hong Kong); compulsory registration of geotechnical engineers and only registered geotechnical engineers permitted to lead geotechnical input to any project.' John Talbot, Bettridge Turner & Partners What would most improve the geotechnical industry?

'General increase in rates and fees to reflect the professionalism and technical skills in doing our job. More money is spent on the door handles of the development than is being spent on site investigation - and I bet the door handle manufacturer doesn't have to sign a collateral warranty.'

Pete Arnold, Yeandle Geotechnical What would most improve the geotechnical industry?

'A professional qualification with regular peer review.' John Chantler, Pell Frischmann What would most improve the geotechnical industry?

'Higher salaries.' Jim Beveridge, Mott MacDonald What would most improve the geotechnical industry?

'Does the industry need improvement? It seems fine to me - business is booming for contractors and consultants in UK and overseas.'

Geoff Card, Card Geotechnics What would most improve the geotechnical industry?

'Better and clearer notification of ground risks to other construction team members. If the geotechnical industry craves greater recognition for its efforts, it will get it by better explaining to other team members how to reduce defects and delays due to ground conditions.'

Tim Chapman, Arup What would most improve the geotechnical industry?

'Closer working relationship with clients.' Terry Bolsher, Aarsleff Piling What would most improve the geotechnical industry?

'Confidence - if a firm is confident that it has a service or product of value it should (unless its confidence is horribly misplaced! ) be able to find clients that value the service, who are willing to pay a fair price for it, will come back again and will recommend it to other clients who appreciate it.

If the industry thinks that it is undervalued and badly paid then it will probably project that to its clients and get what it deserves!

I think that 'the industry' needs to get on with convincing clients of the benefits of what it does well and stop looking for excuses about why clients don't appreciate what we do.'

Steve Branch, Geotechnical & Environmental Associates What would most improve the geotechnical industry?

'Early involvement of a geotechnical adviser on all projects.' Phil Parnell, Weeks Consulting What would most improve the geotechnical industry?

'Recognition that geotechnical engineering is a profession and not an unnecessary evil and that geotechnical contractors offer professional services and not commodities.' Stan Mimms, Pennine What would most improve the geotechnical industry?

'Awareness and client education.'

Martyn Singleton, Keller Ground Engineering What would most improve the geotechnical industry?

'We need to continue to strive to improve all aspects of our business.'

Martin Pratt, Bachy Soletanche

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