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Recession might be painful, but the strong will survive

It’s that time of year again. NCE’s Consultants File is once again on hand to provide you with the facts, figures and analysis that reveal how the profession has been fairing over the last 12 months and who the key players are across the sectors.

The good news is that, according to your figures and despite the growing gloom of 2008, UK consultants have been fairing pretty well.

At £10.3bn, total fees are up by 20% on the boom year of 2007. And staff numbers have also climbed to 172,000 across the industry, up from 156,000 the year before clearly underlining the continued emphasis that remains on infrastructure.

The bad news is that the Consultants File reports the financials and staff numbers as of 2 January. As you will be aware, the world is changing rapidly and many firms have seen orders fall over the last three months and have been announcing staff cuts of between 5% and 10% on an almost weekly basis. Which is a worry. But should we fear for the future?

Despite the booms and busts of the last three decades, consultants have consistently seen spectacular growth  

Well research by Imperial College published this week looks back at the last 30 years of the NCE Consultants File and suggests that we have tended to ride out the stormy economic cycles pretty well. It also suggests that despite the booms and busts of the last three decades, engineering consultancy firms have consistently seen spectacular growth.

I am not about to suggest that civil engineering is by any means immune to the current financial downturn. It is not. Every company is looking very hard at the shape of its business and making serious changes. Real people are losing their jobs and having their lives turned upside down as a result. But despite the gloom, there was still a real sense of optimism among the company bosses at last week’s Consultants Awards. And the latest market trend figures from industry research firm Glenigan suggest there was a 39% increase in civil engineering project starts last month compared to February 2008.

Glenigan also forecasts that, while all construction will see a 30% fall in business this year, continued spending on rail, roads and renewable energy mean that the outlook for civil engineering remains positive.

So with the lessons of history and the predictions of forecasters on our side, we should confidently expect British consulting engineers to be well placed to enjoy some significant growth opportunities when the recovery comes.

But it won’t come without serious effort and much – perhaps painful – change to the way we do business. This will mean forming deeper relationships across a changing and evolving supply chain and finding the right skills to do the right jobs, for the right clients in the most effective ways.

  • AntonyOliverisNCE’s editor  

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