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Rewarding work

Working lives: Staff retention

With a general shortage of engineers, local authorities are struggling to keep their staff, but the London Borough of Camden thinks it has the answer.

An undeclared war has been raging in London for the last few years.

Local authorities are poaching engineers from each other in a bidding game with ever-escalating stakes.

'Islington took eight engineers from us in one go last year, ' says Camden Borough Council head of engineering Peter Blake. Staff have been regularly picked off in ones and twos by other boroughs.

In the next couple of weeks, though, Camden will launch a major counter-attack.

'We've just completed restructuring and consolidation of the engineering department and are now looking for 20 or so new staff to take our total complement over the 100 mark, ' Blake says.

Camden engineering department's £20M a year workload has been swelled by road management and maintenance for mayor Ken Livingstone's transport executive, Transport for London, and for neighbouring north London boroughs. 'We're expecting to win more outsourced roads contracts, ' Blake adds. And the borough is setting out to combat crime and improve quality of life for residents in its least loved corners with an ambitious programme of engineering-led urban improvements.

'That will involve anything from re-configuring bridges on housing estates or improving street lighting to re-landscaping parks, ' says Blake.

'We'll take engineers from anywhere we can, although we're after people who have clocked up experience in an urban authority. The rates we're advertising are in the upper quartile of central London pay.

We are more than competitive with other boroughs, ' he adds.

Blake is recruiting across the age and experience spectrum, 'from manager to graduate - senior engineers through to juniors'.

A powerful weapon in any employer's armoury, high pay is being augmented at Camden with a monthly 7% to 10% of salary bonus for senior engineers, which Blake hopes will ensure staff stay. He does not expect rival authorities to be able to match, let alone better this.

To attract and keep the five 'top notch' graduates it plans to take on, Camden will launch a fast-track training programme, leading to chartered status within three to four years. The candidates will spend six months in each of Camden's five engineering divisions - highways management; highways engineering including capital works and maintenance; road safety; transport; and parking.

'We'll push them hard, ' Blake promises.

The reward for rising to Camden's challenge is wide-ranging experience early on, which should help newly graduated engineers see the jobs they are tackling in the round. 'By the time they've worked in two or three departments our graduates ought to be able to see the safety implications of a traffic management scheme, or the impact of road maintenance on traffic flow.' They will gain rapid professional qualification.

And Camden is operating a split grade promotion system so that young engineers can experience rapid career progress. 'In most authorities, regardless of how good you are, you have to wait for someone to retire before stepping up a grade, which is frustrating, ' explains Blake. At the same time grade promotions are often awarded not so much on merit as according to time served.

'Under our system you'll be able to go up a number of grades in one go, or over a period of time. Engineers can see proof that their experience and achievement count for something.'

Blake would like to see other councils taking the same kinds of initiative - 'the best way to get good engineers is to grow your own. Most aren't doing that'.

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