Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Professional paupers

It's official - civil engineering is one of the lowest paid professions. Richard Thompson asks why.

Few people would argue that they were paid too much for doing their jobs. But, nevertheless, it is alarming that so many civil engineers feel that low pay and the consequent lack of status is undermining their careers.

Even more alarming is that, although anecdotal evidence of these problems has become a statistically backed (see news) and accepted reality, little being done by the profession to tackle the issue.

'We recognise that low pay is an issue for civil engineers,' says Engineering Council marketing director Brian O'Neil. 'Unfortunately like everything else, it is supply and demand. And construction has kept its pay levels down - possibly because it is more vulnerable to economic cycles.'

But are civil engineers alone with their pay and status concerns? Not according to Law Society spokesman David McNeil. He suggests that falling salaries are the consequence of a changing business environment and that all professions are suffering.

'All the professions feel they are not as highly regarded as they once were,' he says. 'It could be a perception issue with the rise of new professions such as public relations that didn't exist 30 years ago.'

'Although all lawyers find legal solutions to clients' problems, some are beginning to identify two distinct professions developing within law,' he says.

'City of London lawyers have never had it so good. A newly qualified lawyer in the City can be on £40,000 within a month of qualifying, while the senior partner of a small high street practice could be on around £35,000 after 25 years.' That said, the concerns among law firms - reflected by the legal press - are more often than not about how to control spiralling salaries in a blooming and competitive market. Firms are having to offer better training, benefits packages and working conditions to keep staff from leaving.

The accountancy profession, however, admits that it is doing well and is able to pay high salaries. Association of Chartered and Certified Accountants spokesman Colin Davies claims one reason the average salary of qualified accountants has increased is because the profession has evolved to suit the changing business environment.

'Accountants are no longer trained simply to be bean counters,' he says. 'They are given more transferable skills and trained to think strategically. Increasingly, accountants are running public sector and business organisations because they are thinking more broadly.

'Many of the top accountancy firms have evolved into management consultants and are moving into other areas. And people now have to look at their skills as transferable across a global market.'

Civil engineering, on the other hand, seems to lack ideas on how to tackle the problem. Resorting to industrial action as Dublin Corporation engineers have done recently (NCE 23 February) would raise questions about professional responsibility and almost certainly fail in the private sector.

But, as with accountancy, civil engineering is evolving. Consultants are merging to form one-stop-shop services; contractors are becoming facilities managers; new forms of contracts are reducing disputes; and alliances are being formed to run chunks of the nation's infrastructure and give clients a better service.

But the fact remains that all these initiatives have produced few signs of improving engineers' income. If anything, the benefits from these new working practices seem to have gone to the lawyers and accountants involved.

When it comes to the hard reality, few would disagree with simple supply and demand economics . For engineers to improve their earnings, either the demand must go up or the supply down.

'One of the things the Engineering Council can do, along with the Institution of Civil Engineers, is to emphasise the need to employ registered engineers,' says O'Neil. By increasing the importance and recognition attached to being a member of a professional body, he says, the status of the individual increases over non-members.

'If engineers can see value in joining (an institution) and the employers see the value of employing registered engineers, there will be a knock- on effect on pay,' he added.

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Please note comments made online may also be published in the print edition of New Civil Engineer. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.