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On course for catastrophe?

Almost every sector of the construction industry is bemoaning the shortage of engineers, but what can be done to improve supply? Claire Symes reports.

Skills shortages have long been the construction industry’s Gordian knot, but the prospect of increased spending on the UK’s roads and railways has made the problem more acute.


Initiatives are being developed and put into practice throughout the sector, however, to alleviate the situation and prevent it becoming a brake on development in the future.


According to a recent survey by the Association of Consulting Engineers, 94% of engineering companies have experienced problems in recruiting experienced engineers. Some 80% of firms have had difficulties in recruiting good quality graduate engineers, while 95% said that structural engineers of all levels were the hardest to recruit, with civil engineers a close second at 88%.


‘The UK is running the risk of being unable to modernise its infrastructure, ’ says ACE chief executive Nicholas Bennett.


‘Government plans for the revitalisation and refurbishment of the road and rail network, combined with the need to improve flood defences, will be almost impossible to achieve if we do not produce the engineers to do the work.’


The number of students applying to study engineering at university fell by 40% between 1994 and 1999, while acceptances fell by 24%. To put these figures into context, other subjects experienced a 9% rise in applications and a 24% rise in acceptances during the same period.


Construction Industry Council director of education and professional development Sheila Hoile says: ‘We are currently working with the CITB, and other leading professional bodies, to develop an action plan which will tackle the root of the skills shortage problem. The task force will look at how careers in engineering can be promoted by schools, universities and employers and will also aim to address the difficulties involved in graduate recruitment and retention.’


Falling student numbers and attracting high calibre candidates is a big concern for academic institutions as well as employers. Surrey University has developed a scholarship scheme for its MEng in civil engineering which it hopes will not just increase the popularity of the course, but also the quality of applicants. Under Surrey’s scholarship scheme, undergraduates will receive £2,000 a year and are guaranteed holiday and sandwich year paid employment by the sponsoring firms.


Surrey University director of MEng studies Dr Bob Griffith says: ‘This September’s intake will be the first to be involved in this new programme, which we believe is the first of its kind. We currently have 17 sponsored places funded by 13 major consultants and contractors but we have a target of 20 scholarships.


‘In the first term, scholarship students will have an opportunity to get to know the sponsor companies and will not be matched to specific firms until the second term. The students will sign a one year rolling contract which will give both students and sponsors the chance to review the scheme.’


Although only scholarship students will benefit financially from the scheme, Surrey believes other students on the course will also gain from additional training days offered by sponsor companies and the experience of their fellow students.


Although applications from within the UK for engineering degree courses have fallen, the number of foreign students studying engineering has remained relatively steady. ‘Under current immigration laws, most foreign students have to leave the country after completing their course, ’ says ACE communications director Andy Walker.


‘If the law was relaxed and gave these students the option to stay on, with the condition that they have to find employment within the construction industry, the shortfall of graduates could be reversed.’


The Government has recently announced plans to introduce vocational GCSEs to overcome skills shortages in the construction industry. However, many have voiced concerns about where the teachers for these new subjects will come from.


‘In theory these new qualifications are a move in the right direction, but with the current teacher shortages in maths and sciences it is likely that recruiting teachers for these new subjects will prove even more difficult, ’ says Walker.


Many contractors, including Balfour Beatty and Edmund Nuttall, are taking on 16 to 18 yearolds and training them to take up key site positions.


‘The cost of going to university is becoming prohibitive for some young people who would normally have gone into engineering, ’ says Balfour Beatty group training and development manager Jeff Keer. ‘By offering apprenticeships with training to BTech level we can make sure these people still enter the industry.’


Rail engineers are in particular short supply, mainly because of the changes in training programmes since privatisation.


Balfour Beatty also offers rail engineering apprenticeships and is in talks with Kings Lynn College about adapting its HNC in civil engineering to better serve the rail industry.


Overall it appears that it has become an employees’ market if they have the right skills. Opportunities for recent graduates to rise through the ranks also seem to be good, while many companies are looking to make the most of their existing workforce through additional training.

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