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NCE survey shows low morale among engineers

Skills crisis : NCEemployment survey

More than half of all engineers are looking for new jobs.

Andrew Mylius reports on the results of NCE's exclusive skills survey.

Engineers are so discontented with their conditions of work, pay and prospects for professional development that three quarters have considered leaving the industry in the last year and half are looking for new employment.

Morale among all ranks of engineers around the country - in contracting and consulting, public and private sectors - is low. A solid response from NCE readers to the first of four questionnaires probing the construction sector skills crisis showed that there is deep concern over recruitment and retention trends - high staff turnover is a problem for three quarters of companies.

Even firms not advertising vacancies at present - a mere 6% - are short staffed. Employers are desperate for young blood: 69% of respondents said their firms want graduates and 72% are looking for qualified engineers. More than a third of firms need mid-career and senior engineers as well.

Yet the number of employers taking action to attract new recruits and hold on to experienced staff is small: just 24% are stumping up cash for higher pay, 10% are improving employee benefits, and 3% have stepped up training. Some are recruiting internationally, while others are chasing framework contracts in a bid to achieve consistent workload. And others are offering incentives to staff who persuade friends to join, calling on 'old boy networks', bribing key staff to stay, offering school leavers and degree students placements or hiring retired engineers.

One engineer said his employer was warning other firms away from its own staff with the threat of legal action.

Recruitment consultants are having a field day.

But 63% of firms are doing absolutely nothing, say respondents.

Consulting engineers and contractors agree unanimously that the single biggest issue the industry must address is pay.

Starting salaries for graduate engineers are averaging £16,500 according to respondents to the survey. Only 4% of graduates are earning more than £18,000, and 10% of engineers are on £14,000.

Our lowest paid respondent is scraping by on £11,000.

But better pay alone is only a partial fix. Improved benefits, including shorter working hours and flexitime, medical cover, longer holidays, contributory pension schemes, performance related bonuses or profit sharing and better training are vital to incentivising staff to stay, say 56% of engineers. These need to be available to all staff, not just to senior engineers. Nearly a fifth of respondents say they receive no work-related benefits.

Three quarters of employees feel they are overworked. When the rewards for their labour are widely regarded as so low, it is no wonder that 82% of engineers say they are undervalued by their employer.

Yet engineers in the main still want to be engineers. They are simply frustrated, angry and increasingly being driven away from the career of their choice, by the appalling prospects. Seventy three per cent of respondents said they would like to take on more responsibility if they were properly rewarded for it. A few of those who said they are looking for new jobs want to migrate to IT, accountancy, management consultancy or law, but the majority is seeking to take an upward step within their existing discipline.

Feedback shows that students and recent graduates are eager to get stuck into interesting projects. They anticipate hands on experience, training on the job, rapid learning and are optimistic about advancing up the career ladder. But graduates in their mid to late 20s are facing up to the realities of repetitive work, low levels of stimulation and reward, and slow career progression. They are, in general, still committed to engineering, but are strong in condemning its shortcomings. A few are looking to sectors outside engineering where their skills will be better appreciated.

By the time engineers have reached their late 30s and 40s, bitterness is starting to set in.

They indicate less company loyalty and are more likely than their younger and older colleagues to jump ship in search of a better job. With years of experience under their belts, they are able to list their employers' faults. Senior engineers are among the most critical, featuring largely in the 26% who said their employer was neither fair nor equal.

And engineers entering their 50s who feel their career has reached a dead end are, once again, looking to get out. Early retirement and independent consulting work figure in their plans.

In a bid to improve morale, employers should be providing more opportunity for upward progression, respondents say.

Engineers with families want to spend more time at home, not working crazy hours in the office or at far-flung sites. Working culture and conditions badly need to be improved. Some suggest the gender and ethnic profile of civil engineering needs to be diversified through positive discrimination.

But besides valuing their staff, respondents cited training shortfalls as employers' other really major failing. A quarter of respondents receive no training or CPD at all and a huge 47% of engineers say they are not properly nor appropriately trained.

Sections of the industry were particularly keen to have their views heard. For example, 30% more consultants responded to the questionnaire than contractors. Engineers working in local government, water, highways and structures were the most vociferous.

But there is no doubt that, while it is not too late for the engineering industry to turn itself around, action must be taken urgently if it is to avoid haemorrhaging its life-blood - people.

Results of NCE's second skills questionnaire, aimed at consultants, are due out on 17 January. NCE will be holding three live debates on the skills crisis at Civils 2002, NEC Birmingham, 11-13 June. For details phone Sally Devine (020) 7505 6644 or Russell Kenrick (020) 7505 6882. www. civils. com

Have you been tempted to leave your company in the last year? 76% said yes 24% said no

Are you over worked? 75% said yes 25% said no

Have you considered leaving the industry in the last year? 64% said yes 36% said no

Does your employer have vacancies? 94% said yes 6%said no

How should the skills shortage be addressed? 84% said higher pay 56% said better benefits

Are you looking for a new job? 53% said yes 47% said no

Are you under valued? 82% said yes 18% said no

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