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Students shun degrees in civil engineering

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.

Readers' comments (18)

  • You just don't get it do you. Being a civil engineer is hard; high entry requirements, lousy salaries, long hours in often inhospitable places. People are no longer prepared to make the sacrifice as the reward isn't worth it. Unless you address this fundamental problem then the decline will continue.

    'Surveys' that tell us the median starting salary is over £24k come across as a shoddy attempt at marketing, just like the ICE in-house salary surveys that give average salaries that most folk never see. It is not credible and bright young things simply don’t believe them, they can find the true picture out for themselves from other sources and then vote with their feet.

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  • After the cap on tuition fees in England, I spotted a Government website with a fees repayment calculator, based on average starting salaries for a wide range of professions, including Civil Engineering. Perhaps I should not have been so surprised to see that of all professions shown, Civil Engineering was listed with the lowest average starting salary. The site is no longer up, but that sends a pretty poor message to school leavers.

    Once you take into consideration that a Masters is now the preferred route to professional membership, taking a year longer than most degrees, it's no wonder that school leavers wishing to study at English universities are discouraged to this extent. I raised this with a senior member of the ICE recently, and I'm sad to report that I was disappointed with the response I received.

    Also, from the article above, you cannot quite tell whether this applies to the whole of the UK (assume so, given they are UCAS stats) and so it might be that these figures hide a larger decrease in applications to English universities, as opposed to Scottish universities where tuition remains free of charge.

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  • It is not just university fees and starting salaries that are the problem (although they are a BIG problem!). School pupils need to take the right subjects at GCSE level. They need to be in the right "stream" for maths and science from early on at a secondary school and then take separate science subjects at GCSE level, not General Science. If this means more and better maths and science teachers then pay them more than others - no doubt in the teeth of opposition from some teaching unions! The brighter pupils need to be placed in to the correct stream - no doubt offending the comprehensive purists. But, if we want more engineers and scientists then we have to start by dealing with the basic problem - our education system.
    Roger R Ball

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  • Market is largely driven by demand-supply esp. in Capitalist society we live in...
    If Investment banking pays £38k for a start and civil engineering £38k post 6-8 years exp. surely one would choose the former, as some of the number crunching/ management/ people skills we do as Civil Engineers is far more demanding...
    The question we need to ask where does the law/finance/medical/IT industry get the money to pay the professionals! Higher Margins, Higher Demand, Better Productivity, Entry Barriers, Scandals, etc.

    Other way to look at this is... market in itself is good in finding equilibrium.. reduced grads implies .... pressure to increase productivity, pressure to increase pays, increased mechanisation (not sure if it helps in all aspects), etc....

    From personal perspective it is imperative that the industry does look into the low pay rates not only for grads but also senior individuals in the industry... eg. Crossrail is a £16-17bn job and has a few director level individuals, while a smallest hedge fund is similar ball park with 1-2 director level manager.

    What is it we are doing wrong or we are correct and other professions are in a bubble!

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  • I agree completely with what you're saying Roger. Something I've been thinking about lately is that, perhaps much in the way we have overtly 'professional' politicians spending their entire careers in the political arena, similarly there are a large proportion of teachers now spending their entire lives in teaching - coming straight out of teacher training college in their early twenties, having only just come out of school themselves. I would far rather see people who have had a career, even if just for a few years, and then trainedto be a teacher, and help pass their knowledge and experience on, in addition to core teaching. Teachers don't just need to be 'teachers', but they need to be role models too. Some of the teachers I have met on visits to schools really don't live up to that.

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  • Another part of the problem is that in educating our children, we have become too scared of prejudicing their decisions when it comes to careers. We also expect them to decide, at a very early age, what they want to do. Some people really aren't ready for university at 17 or 18, because they don't know what they want to do, they haven't found a passion or interest that they really want to invest themselves in. But the system stigmatises those that choose not to go to university straight from school, or that don't get in. It's a real shame.

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  • Like many others, I lament the commoditisation of engineering that has led to the pitifully low level of fees that we can charge our clients (my firm is currently charging for our high end consultancy service at approximately 2001 levels and we are unable to charge more because our competitors will simply undercut us). Inevitably this means that we are unable to pay ourselves and our staff a reasonable wage and sadly I see many of the best and brightest graduates leaving the profession, probably never to return.

    My own daughter recently graduated with a First in Mechanical Engineering and was immediately snapped up by a leading Management Consultancy on a pay and benefits package that no engineering firm could hope to match. It saddens me greatly that this should be the case and it seems unlikely to change unless and until the anticipated crisis of engineering resources occurs.

    I would add that even if the crisis does come, there is no great reason for optimism. Whilst we in Europe may be seeing a rapid downturn in engineering graduate numbers, that is not the case in other parts of the world, notably India and Asia generally. I suspect that there will still be plenty of good engineers around - they just won't be European. Experience shows that people from those regions do not have the same hangups about travelling and working abroad as we tend to have, so I expect that most employers will still be able to find engineering graduates in spite of the gloomy graduate figures from this part of the world.

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  • To understand the money is simple. The cost of financial transactions, currency exchange, arranging a loan etc. is around 1.5-2.5%. few people involved if any. Roughly the same fee the engineer gets for the structure. No risk and lots of repetition not helped by online structural services charging £50 to design a beam. Consultants also need to change the way they work. So inefficent. Engineers that cant drive integrated software packages because of historical us them between engiiners and draughtsman etc mean doubling up of staff costs. A past president of the structures said 30years ago that not enough things fell down. Until the profession is licenced, becomes efficent as it is in other countries we get what we deserve.

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  • Has anybody thought about comparing it with our counter parts, say EU if not Australia and Canada or Asia (Japan, China and India etc). Yes it is money and it is career but I am sure it is more of prestige as well what no Engineer in the UK gets it while in mainland Europe Engineering is a well respected profession and people adore it. Consequently lots of Engineers in rather high profile jobs within Government. I have spoke to an ICE president (Ex) about protecting the "Engineer" title but response was rather a disappointment. Same issue was going about "Surgeons" the other day in BBC. Raise the profile of profession by isolating real Engineers from gas, tap and wireless router fixing so called Engineers and it will do a lot.

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  • This has been the subject of a number of research papers by Mike Byfield and Dr B Clark and others, which are published in ICE proceedings. If you chart history there is a very clear correlation between the number of entrants to the first year of civil engineering degree courses and the demand for the previous years graduates. In boom times when there is a lot of demand there are a lot of entrants. When there is poor demand, there are fewer entrants (ref Mike Byfield 2001).

    In summary, the best thing we can do is to employ the graduates - if we do this many more will join. If we fail to do this, they will not be there when we need them. The issue of graduates leaving after 2 years in the industry is another important, but different problem. I have given a number of presentations on this subject, including at ICE events - happy to repeat them if people are interested.

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