Fears of a prolonged downturn in the industry have been raised after applications to civil engineering university courses plummeted by more than a tenth this year.
UCAS data this week showed there were just 22,827 applications to take the subject at university in 2012 – down 12.1% from 2011.
This fall is far sharper than the 7.7% drop felt across all subjects as higher fees take their toll. Industry figures expressed concern at the figures, and called for more to be done to promote the profession’s achievements in schools.
Civil Engineering Contractors Association director of external affairs Alasdair Reisner said: “It is worrying. There is an impending infrastructure crunch in the UK so we will need more civil engineers, not fewer.
“The last thing we want when we eventually get a recovery is to have it throttled because we do not have enough capable staff, so the cost of staff goes up and projects become unaffordable.
“You cannot just decide to go into civil engineering and be in the industry the next day; it quite rightly requires high quality and lengthy training.”
Professor David Nethercot, former head of civil engineering at Imperial College London, said the figures highlighted the pressing need to examine Olympic marketing restrictions.
“One would like to think civil engineering is enjoying good press at the moment with the Olympics and other high profile projects around the world.
“It would be nice to think that this tremendous success story could be really exploited not just for commercial gain but for the industry’s benefit, and that it would not be restricted.”
He added that pupils were not always clear about what engineers actually did.
“A greater awareness of the job and the rewards would not go amiss. People know what doctors and lawyers do but not engineers.
“One of the most powerful ways of doing this is getting recent graduates to speak to people in schools while there is an affinity. Sixteen-year-olds can project themselves forward five years but not 40.”
ICE director general Nick Baveystock, said that while ICE members had a role as ambassadors for the sector, the government also had a part to play.
“The government needs to ensure appropriate funding and planning to ensure specialist maths and science teachers are in place in all schools, with flexible funding arrangements for 14 to 19 provision so that collaboration is encouraged between schools, further education and university technical colleges,” he said.
“The reduction in applications is a cause for concern, and there are many factors that require closer analysis.
“A drop in overseas applications, high entry requirements, and the continued downturn in the construction industry may all be contributing factors. We shall be looking in detail at these figures to determine the reasons behind the drop.”
Poor pay may also be a factor
Engineering is on course to become the worst-paid profession for graduates.
A survey by the Association of Graduate Recruiters found that the median graduate starting salary for a civil engineer in 2011/12 was £24,500.
This was ahead only of retail management from the professions surveyed, with the gap between the two closing to just £500.
The poll found that engineering and industrial job opportunities rose by 60% from 2010/11 to 2011/12. One in 10 vacancies in 2011/12 was in engineering or industrial companies.
However, less than 2% were for civil engineers.
The highest paid profession – investment banking – offers median starting salaries above £38,000.