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Readies for a change

Comment Jackie Whitelaw

2emissions and global warming This week is National Construction Week and the underlying purpose of events up and down the UK will be to attract, perhaps beg, people to come and work in the industry.

The skills shortage, even with the prospect of a recession ahead, is reaching worrying proportions. Some industry leaders have already been heard predicting total meltdown, with the UK's indigenous engineering sector dwindling almost to oblivion as young people shun engineering studies and opt for alternative careers.

Even those of us not looking at the world through the bottom of a bottle of red wine recognise that there is a major problem.

However, the most inventive Construction Week events are unlikely to make a big enough dent in the civil engineering staffing problem.

The solution is of course simple - we must pay more money.

If the mid-range salaries quoted in NCE 's recruitment pages read not £35,000 but £70,000 or £80,000 there would not be a skills shortage. While employers and clients fail to address the disparity between what numerate civil engineering graduates can earn as civil engineers and what they can earn using their skills elsewhere, shortages will continue.

Graduates are not driven by simple greed in opting for the professions that pay the best.

Student loans have changed the rules of the education game.

The National Union of Students says people now leave university with an average debt of £14£15,000. Being able to quickly remove this huge millstone makes certain careers instantly more attractive.

Education secretary Estelle Morris recognised the problem when she launched a review of student support arrangements at the Labour Party Conference this month. But the focus will be to provide government support for students from lower income families. This means students from lower middle income levels upwards will continue to run up debts to pay for higher education.

This problem provides the industry with the opportunity to solve its skills shortage far more quickly than the time it will take to reorder the sector so it can pay higher wages.

Consultants and contractors should be going into schools and recruiting directly from there, selling civil engineering degrees to 17 year olds and offering to pay their way through college in return for future employment. You would see an almost immediate surge in interest in the profession, from the students and perhaps just as importantly, from their parents as they see a way to ease the burden of higher education costs.

But it is no good flapping around at the edges, trumpeting support for one or even 10 school leavers. That is not enough.

The target should be to have every single civil engineering student sponsored throughout their higher education by construction employers. That would create an immediate dent in the civils shortage. And it would certainly be a headline grabbing announcement in National Construction Week.

Jackie Whitelaw is managing editor of NCE

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