UNIVERSITY GRADUATES should be starting their civil engineering careers on a basic wage of £18,000, ICE President George Fleming claimed last week.
Fleming first raised his views while speaking to graduates and students at a Thames Valley Local Association meeting at the beginning of the month, but last week he spoke exclusively to NCE about his views.
'Employers should encourage young engineers by better rewarding them, ' said Fleming.
'They should be given a share of the company's profit as I do with my employees.'
He added: '£18,000 is a threshold but even that isn't very much.
Graduates are leaving university in huge debt and the salaries they are being offered at the moment are not enough.'
Fleming's comments struck a nerve with many graduate engineers.
'Having chosen civil engineering as a profession one has to resign oneself to receiving a wage that is at least as low as for any other job, if not worse. This seems hardly the way to attract people to the profession, ' said one Balfour Maunsell graduate.
Indeed, the facts speak for themselves. Graduate membership has fallen by nearly a quarter over the past 20 years: in 1980 there were almost 20,000 graduate members. Now there are just over 15,000.
Fifty two per cent of civil engineering graduates enter the profession. However, once joined, how long do they stay?
'Engineers are not valued like they are abroad and that depresses salaries and interest, ' said one Arup graduate. 'So when people ask me whether I intend staying on as a structural civil engineer in the UK, the answer would be no. I will either go abroad, or perhaps sell my soul to the financial world to get the higher salary that I would prefer.'
Employers, when told of Fleming's views, were unimpressed.
'If Professor Fleming wants to give us the extra money each year, then fine, ' said a spokesman for Gibb, which pays its graduates an average of £15,000 pa. 'Graduates leave university without any real experience and become useful after six to 12 months of training. You are therefore paying an initial wage for academic qualifications alone.'
When reminded that many employers in other sectors are willing to pay far more than £15,000 for academic qualification alone, he said: 'Banking and so on are far more buoyant than the construction industry - there simply aren't the same profit margins. If we begin to pay high salaries such as that, we will be pricing ourselves out of the game.'
Pay for civil engineering graduates joining contractors will continue to be dictated by the market rather than 'encouragement' from the ICE, according to a spokesman for Amec.
'Two factors dictate the starting salaries of civil engineers - the state of the market and what the individual is worth to the business. It's wrong to be totally prescriptive, ' he said.
The depressed state of civil engineering is said to have stunted salary growth during the late 1990s but the situation is changing for the better, say contractors. A combination of a slow recovery in the market and a further 11% drop last year in numbers applying to civil engineering courses means there are less quality graduates to do more work.
A spokesman for Costain said: 'It is a simple case of supply and demand. Until now there have been enough engineers to meet market requirements.
However, the rapid drop in numbers of civil engineers joining the industry and the recovery in workload will lead to higher salaries.'
However, Fleming does not feel that the situation can wait for market forces alone.
'We have to tell employers that they need to change this situation or they will lose the skills and profitable companies will be restricted, ' he said.
But the President believes there are limits to the pressure the ICE can put on employers.
'The ICE has never been a trade union, ' he said. 'It is a professional body, but we can encourage reasonable reward for the skills available.'