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School's out?

With the call for entries to NCE’s Graduate Awards now underway, David Hayward offers a snapshot of today’s graduate training programmes.

Baby boomer civil engineers - today’s middle aged managers calculating retirement dates and problematic pension levels - would doubtless be amazed at the wide ranging opportunities now offered through graduate training programmes.

Hundreds of classroom, or e-learning, based courses – from personalised on the job training and toolbox talks to time and stress management advice – are now standard injections into a graduate’s working week. And, within months of pocketing an up to £4000 ‘golden hello’, our most sought after young engineers could be enjoying all expenses paid canal narrow boat breaks to develop team working or organising mock client networking days at a posh hotel.

The uneventful graduate induction chat of the seventies has been replaced by elaborate three day conferences attended by the cream of a company’s ‘who’s who’ list. And, if they haven’t had breakfast with the chairman by the end of year one, trainee graduates would hopefully have competed alongside him during a spacehopper race or ‘ultimate frisbee’ competition.

“I imagined graduate training as an extension of my uni course, but it’s far more practical and positive with everyone keen to share knowledge” says Arup water engineer Robin Campbell, now in his third post graduate year. “It doesn’t feel like office work – more a supportive studio environment where I am given all the responsibility I can handle.

Arup epitomises our industry’s drive to attract and retain the best graduates in a continuing sellers market, despite threatening credit-crunch clouds. “We can offer a project portfolio dominated by innovation and variety” claims head of graduate recruitment Neil Shaw. “By concentrating on early responsibility, freedom and a high level of trust, we are currently getting all the right calibre graduates we want.”
Near half the company’s 200 strong graduate intake this year will be civils or structural engineers. The consultant, unusually, is owned by a trust on behalf of employees; allowing staff - including graduates from day one - to share in company profits.

Shaw readily admits to spending ‘serious’ money on graduate training and to offering an industry-leading £4000 ‘golden hallo’ for a masters degree student. “Our most important asset is our staff, with democracy and a flat management structure dominating the way we run the company.”

Close on Arup’s heels in graduate intake is a company claiming to be Britain’s fastest growing consultant, with a workforce doubling to over 10,000 in the last five years.

“Our 35 regional offices, and operations in a similar number of countries, will allow us to offer this year’s 60 or so new graduates a wide choice of work locations” says WSP training and development manager Caroline Nevard. “Wherever practical we encourage them to work in their local office, and around 10% could be based overseas sometime during their first three years.”

The company’s total 400 graduates are formed into eight regional groups, each led by an elected leader and deputy. Groups organise speakers, competitions, site, school and university visits, plus social events – much of it company funded.

The online ‘WSP university’- and interactive ‘facebook’ style GradNet - are typical of our major companies’ e-learning packages. These offer graduates seemingly endless portals for global discussion forums and knowledge sharing across the organisation, plus, at WSP, access to over 100 classroom-based courses ranging from team leadership to contract negotiating skills.

You can almost hear those baby boomers mumbling: “These newcomers have never had it so good.”

Arup graduate Robin Campbell

NCE graduate of the year runner-up two years ago, and now a third year post grad Arup water engineer, Robin Campbell, reckons he organises his work time much better this month thanks to his latest soft skills course ‘personal effectiveness’.

“Its section on stress management left me feeling strangely relaxed, yet still enjoying this company’s overwhelming positive attitude to knowledge sharing” he says.

Helping 27 year old Campbell at both wok and play is his personal company- delegated ‘buddy’. This newly chartered engineer becomes friend and mentor, backing up the firm’s more formal ICE appointed graduate supervising civil engineer.

“The expression that the answer to any problem is only a couple of phone calls away really hangs true here” says Campbell, claiming that Arup; “more than matched his expectations” when he left Cardiff university with a first class MEng degree.


WSP Graduate Natalie Veale

Sponsored by WSP throughout her four years at Surrey university, 24 year old Natalie Veale was “unpressured and totally free to go anywhere else on graduation” she asserts. “But I remain amazed and delighted at the variety of work on offer at WSP and the high level of responsibility I have in just my first year.”

With already eight in-house courses, and breakfast with the chairman, behind her, Veale quickly felt “a full member of the company, offered lots of support and personal guidance”.

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