Students seeking work experience may not be benefiting from the opportunities presented by the skills shortage. Diarmaid Fleming reports on one who finally struck lucky and one university's imaginative e-step.
In these days of skills shortages, landing a job would seem to be the least of the worries occupying an engineering undergraduate's mind.
But surprisingly, getting experience before graduation is not as simple as might be expected.
While a number of employers actively seek students for placements and some universities organise imaginative programmes to help students get valuable on-the-job experience to give some context to their studies, some students' early introduction to the profession is less than inspiring.
A number of students contacted by NCE say that they experienced considerable difficulty attracting even a letter of acknowledgement after applying to consultants or contractors for vacation or undergraduate placement work.
At a time when employers say that attracting staff is a major difficulty, not least because of an alarming drop in the number studying engineering at graduate level, giving students the chance to develop workplace experience would seem to be a major benefit. Early relationships can be forged for little cost with students who could within three years develop into employees.
One student who spoke to been offered a job, only after five months of exhaustive efforts. 'I have just been offered a job by O'Rourke and am delighted, but before then it was very difficult, ' says third year University of Sheffield master of engineering student Jonathan Richardson.
'My course does not make workplace placements compulsory, but I was really keen to get some real experience. It helps you see what it's all about.'
Having worked last year for Mott MacDonald, he wanted to get site experience with a contractor. He reels off a list with many well-known names. Very few even acknowledged his letter and CV, he says. Even the ease of communication provided by e-mail seems to have made little difference.
'A lot ask you to apply on-line, yet firms did not even reply to that, ' he adds.
Richardson says other students have had similar problems. He says that his academic record is good, and he placed no demands for money or type of work. His only requirement was that work be located within travelling distance of his parents' home in Bristol or his student lodgings in Sheffield.
A letter to NCE prompted some interest from firms in Scotland and Northumbria; too far for him to travel. O'Rourke's offer came out of the blue, providing work near Bristol which he is looking forward to with enthusiasm. 'They showed interest and have a different approach and already there is the possibility of sponsorship for my final year, ' he says.
Some of the difficulties may lie in individuals having to find work for themselves. Equally for employers, dealing with speculative applications can take time they would rather spend gearing up for a systematic recruitment drive. The involvement of universities seems to make the process a lot easier, providing, at the very least, a ready marketplace for employers and students alike.
Professional training tutor for civil engineering at Coventry University Dr John Davies says:
'There is quite a demand for students from employers. It gives them the chance to check out students, while students can get experience, ' he says. He operates a scheme to encourage employers to give students vacation experience and uses industry contacts to place them on sandwich years.
'We have around seven or eight companies which regularly come to us offering placements.'
Ironically says Davies, the fertile job market has made some students opt to skip the sandwich year, the opposite of the trend when jobs were scarce and students sought to impress.
'Some think that there's so much work there they want to start as early as possible. When work is harder to get, students are keener to get placements which could be the difference between getting a job or not, ' he says.
However most take up the chance, he says, which he sees as a vital aspect of the learning experience and development into an engineer. 'Some students change beyond recognition after experiencing the work environment. It means real development, sparking enthusiasm in civil engineering. I've never seen people not benefit from it, ' he says.
Cynics might say that part of the real-life experience of engineering should be low money.
Anecdotal evidence from academics involved in placements suggests that salaries for students are around two thirds that for graduates, with pro-rata wages between £12,000 and £15,000 outside of London, and between £15,000 and £18,000 in London.
However one student told NCE he is currently earning £10,000 in London. 'It is not much, but then the company doesn't seem to be making much effort to give me meaningful experience. I am doing just office work and perhaps that is all they think I am worth. Being here is good for my CV but not much else, ' he says.
Taking on students, some with no work experience, particularly for short term vacation placements, may prove more of a headache for some employers, Tailoring work for a student may not always be possible.
But a scheme just launched by City University aims to do just that. 'We found that with industrial placements, it wasn't always possible for employers to take people on for a year. But employers have things going on which would be of interest to students and would help them gain experience. You need a flexible system, ' says City University London civil engineering director of studies Dr Sarah Stallebrass.
The scheme, 'Open door to industry', is a imaginative use of the internet at its best. A group of companies known as 'industry partners' - including Skanska, Clancy Consulting, Geotechnical Consulting Group, Alan Baxter Associates and WSP - post on the website interesting activities which may be coming up. 'It could be a site visit to see silent piling for a few hours, or something which is going on for a longer period of time. Or it could be sitting in on an interesting design meeting, ' says Dr Stallebrass. Current opportunities include the chance 'to see how your surveying skills could be used in practice' by spending an afternoon assisting Skanska's chief setting out engineer.
Where there is excessive demand, or employers can only cope with small numbers, selection criteria, such as the relevance of the activity to the student's experience or studies, are applied.
The scheme is voluntary, although students must compile a feedback report before they can apply for the next opportunity. As well as providing an ideal environment for developing informal contacts, the site also offers vacation and sandwich year placements.
INFOPLUS www. city. ac. uk/engineering/ opendoor