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NCE100 | What makes an NCE100 firm?


The firms in the NCE100 are a mix of consultants and contractors ranging from the biggest multinational to the smallest SME, and they are clearly great places to work and great people to work with.

In total, the 100 firms collectively earn £65bn, £16bn of which is from UK activities. They employ 394,000 people, of which, 69,100 are qualified engineers – defined as holding membership of a professional engineering institution.

And they are one happy bunch.

Four out of five, when asked, said they had no desire to work anywhere other than their current employer.

That is right, 5,094 of almost 6,500 engineers surveyed as part of the process which established the 2017 NCE100 businesses said they agreed with this statement: “My company is great and I have no desire to work anywhere else”.

The NCE100 is, we believe, a totally independent, authoritative assessment of what it means to be an excellent civil engineering practice.  The 100 businesses are chosen and ranked following a comprehensive, three stage process. First, we analyse responses to a comprehensive company questionnaire. Secondly, scores are then awarded by judges who have scrutinised written submissions and then interviewed business leaders from the highest performers. Finally scores are drawn from views about the businesses expressed by the staff themselves – in a confidential survey that all NCE100 companies must encourage their staff to complete.

Pi 1

Pi 1

All assessments are made against New Civil Engineer’s five core pillars that embrace the competencies and passions the industry looks for in outstanding firms: technical excellence; technology leadership; talent development; action on equality; and global leadership. And sitting on top of that is a key behaviour that we also seek to assess: collaboration.

The companies that make the grade are all striving for excellence and, in many areas, they are achieving it.

Overall satisfaction

The outcome does seem to be satisfied staff and satisfied clients alike. But who is most satisfied?

One key finding is that when it comes to staff satisfaction, size of employer does matter. The most satisfied staff work for the smallest companies, although many of the largest businesses still get high satisfaction ratings. While 87% of those working for small firms have no desire for a move, 76% of those working for the biggest firms with 1,000-plus employees are also happy with their lot.

Future Tech

In the key area of technology leadership, the majority – 81 – of the NCE100 firms say they have a digital strategy that all staff have access to; 79 have measures in place to check it is working; and 82 have a board director responsible.

And 85 say they are fully operating at building information modelling (BIM) Level 2. Next year we shall be asking if they have certification to support that claim.


Chart3 2

Chart3 2

But are they putting their money where their mouths are? On average, the NCE100 firms say they spend 4.9% of their turnover on technology-led development.

And this seems to be manifesting itself well – with the 100 collectively claiming to have brought more than 1,000 new technologies to market in the last calendar year.  

Staff seem satisfied that their firms are moving in the right direction in this area – in terms of use of existing technologies and willingness to invest in developing new technologies. Nearly all – 97% – are aware of their firm’s digital strategy and 79% say it has had a positive impact on the way they work.

Future engineer

Moving on to talent development and contribution to the profession, our analysis of company data shows that collectively, the NCE100 has employed 6,300 graduates in the last calendar year, of which 2,400 were in the UK. In total the NCE100 firms have 5,900 graduates training towards a professional qualification with a further 900 apprentices on their own paths towards qualification.

With the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy, much scrutiny in the coming years will be placed on the percentage of a firms’ UK pay bill that is spent on apprentice development. It is encouraging that on average, NCE100 firms spend 1.4% of their wage bills on this, well ahead of the 0.5% that the government is demanding be spent.

Chart2 3 2

Chart2 3 2

And here is an insight into why staff are generally happy with their lot – on balance staff are “satisfied” by structured career guidance, mentoring, pace of career development, and, perhaps surprisingly, salary and other benefits.

Again, smaller firms have more satisfied employees when it comes to career support.

Contributing to the profession is a hallmark of a good firm and again staff, on balance, are “satisfied” with the way their employers engage with schools and colleges and promotes the profession to the wider media.

Indeed, 31% of staff surveyed said they worked with schools and colleges directly, with, reassuringly, almost all of those surveyed (26%) trained science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) ambassadors or equivalent.

Data from the NCE100 companies themselves reveals that they have collectively trained up almost 2,000 STEM ambassadors.

This STEM activity and more project-specific outreach saw them organising or participating in 2,500 community events and engaging with 1,950 schools events.

And reassuringly, 85% of staff working for NCE100 firms said their employers supported them in doing this training, with just 9% expected to do this entirely in their own time.

And there are rewards on offer: 22% of employees said their firm has a reward scheme for such work.

There is also practical help offered to individuals doing promotional television and other media work, with 28% of staff, on balance, feeling they get the support they need for this.

The return on this investment can be gleaned from analysis of the company data: in the last year, representatives from NCE100 businesses made 280 TV appearances and did just 225 radio spots.

Technical excellence

Technical excellence is, arguably, the expertise that underpins everything. So it is reassuring that 77% of staff responding to the NCE100 survey are either professionally qualified or working towards qualification with the appropriate engineering institution.

And it is good to see that on average, two thirds of executive boards are made up of civil engineers, 74 of the NCE100 have an innovation director and 76 are led by a civil engineer chief executive.

Chart4 3

Chart4 3

The NCE100 firms tell us that, on average, they spend 4% of turnover on research and development.

Despite this relatively low figure, NCE100 firms’ staff remain satisfied with the way their employers push technical boundaries and challenge conventional thinking about project design and delivery.

Staying with the staff survey, a respectable 19% of respondents said they sit on professional committees, with most – 90% – saying they are able to do this work in part or in entirely in work time.

And what of sustainability and low carbon? Analysis of company data show that 63 have sustainability directors and 24 have carbon managers. Interestingly, 54 say they have plans to become carbon neutral businesses, 23 of them within five years. But only 36 record their carbon footprint and just seven currently do any carbon offsetting.

Engineering Equality

Equality in the workplace is still a big issue, and a weak area for the industry generally. Analysis of company data reveals the scale of the problem, but they do also show that work is being done.

Overall, on average, 23% of the NCE100’s global workforce is female – which, for the construction industry, is not a bad result – although there is clearly some way to go before the kind of numbers that clients are increasingly demanding are hit.

In the UK, chosen as a fair playing field on which to compare performance, the number is not that different – with 24% of UK staff, on average, female. But it is perhaps not changing as fast as might be thought, as just 26% of graduates, are on average, female. And what of the glass ceiling? It is there alright – on average, only 17% of board places are held by women.

Chart5 2

Chart5 2

The salary differential is also a big measure, and, on average, men are paid 29% more than women in the NCE100 firms – which is broadly in line with the national average across all industries. The overall average salary? For men: £39,920; for women: £31,860.

The good news, and entirely appropriately, is that at graduate level this gender pay gap is all but eliminated: male graduates, on average, earn £27,600 and female graduates £26,720 – a gap of under £900, although it does mean that male graduates are paid 2.7% more than their female colleagues.

But is there enough genuine action on equality issues? Well, 94 firms said they had a diversity policy, 89 said they had measures to check it was working and 89 said they have a board director who is accountable for equality issues. Yet again actions speak louder than words. One simple action is to sign up to Women into Science and Engineering’s  (WISE’s) 10 steps to gender equality initiative, but only 24 of the 100 companies have.

Another good action is to roll out a programme of unconscious bias training for all staff – and again more could be done, with firms, on average, reporting that 20% of their staff have received this.

And what of other under-represented groups? Our figures show that, on average, 2% of staff are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, 13% are from ethnic minorities, 4% are over the statutory retirement age, and 1% are registered disabled.

Curiously, despite the indifferent numbers, staff actually rate their firms highly on their diversity policies. On balance, employees rate their firm’s openness to employing and treating fairly people of all under-represented groups as between good and very good.

Inclusivity can also be measured through employers’ approaches to work-life balance and stress, and there are warning signs here.

While, on balance, staff are happy with their work-life balance and believe their employers to be “concerned” with their physical health and mental wellbeing, most employees – 62% – are still expected to regularly work more than a 37.5 hour week and a notable 25% report that their work is causing them stress.

Of all staff responding to the survey, 8% say they regularly suffer unpleasant levels of stress and 7% say they have had to seek help for it. Somewhat reassuringly 87% say they feel their employer  supported them – but of course that means 13% say it did not.

Where is that stress coming from? Well, 16% of those surveyed say they do not have enough time to do their job, 22% say they have been encouraged to cut corners because of time or cost constraints and 12% feel they have, at some time, been put at unnecessary risk. Seventeen percent feel in some way concerned about their working environment and/or conditions.

Again, you can see cause for these concerns in what the companies themselves told us. Of the NCE100, 57 expect staff to opt out of the European Union Working Time Directive, which could lead to staff routinely being expected to work long hours, potentially causing stress and certainly affecting work-life balance.

To mitigate these factors, 83 NCE100 firms say they have initiatives in place to manage over-tired workers. But NCE100 employers do only, as an average, invest less than one percent  (0.7%) of turnover on occupational health initiatives.

Ninety two of the NCE100 firms do offer part-time working or job-sharing and 91 have a returnship strategy.

World view

Of the NCE100, 65 work abroad, with the rest of Europe the top destination: 51 work there. In the rest of the world, 48 work in the Middle East. 41 in Africa, 35 in the Far East and 32 in Australia and New Zealand.

Only 39 said they worked in North America as an overseas territory, but with so many of the NCE100 now in US or Canadian ownership, working there has to be seen increasingly as home ground.

Chart2 3

Chart2 3

Analysis of the data shows that the NCE100 companies, on average, put 18% of their staff to work on projects outside the UK and/or their home territory, with 14% of staff, on average, based overseas. This number is reflected in what the staff told us. Only 21% rated their opportunity to travel and work on global projects as good or very good.

Back with the company data, it shows that, on average, 19% of turnover is earned overseas, although just how this breaks down varies wildly depending on the size and type of firm. Some of the NCE100 companies earn 80% or more of their turnover abroad, others earn all their money in the UK.  

And what of the international impact of NCE100 firms? Their effort is being noticed, with these businesses sharing between them 282 international prizes in the last year. But how does this match up to other competitors abroad?

Well, only a shade over half of staff  in our survey (53%) thought their firms’ reputation compared well with competitors from other countries.


What is the NCE100?

The NCE100 companies have been assessed against five core pillars They are: Technical Excellence: Extent to which a company embraces and encourages technical excellence in its staff and strives for low carbon construction. Future Tech: Extent to which a company exploits existing technologies and explores new ones. Future Engineer: Extent to which a company develops talent and promotes the profession. Engineering Equality: Extent to which a company is driving the equality agenda and seeking to be an inclusive place to work. World View: Extent to which a company has global impact by working overseas or sharing best practice internationally. They have also been assessed on their Collaborative Behaviours: The degree to which a company is viewed as collaborative by peers, clients and its own staff.



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