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Talking point: Why are senior chartered engineers worth only £45 per hour? asks Keith Gabriel.

Arecent survey of civil engineering consultants' fees by Mirza & Nacey and New Civil Engineer magazine's website NCE+ found that the average charge-out rate for a senior chartered engineer was only £45 per hour. Before considering the implications of this figure, a brief review of the employment market for civil engineers is warranted.

There is now general acceptance that the civil engineering industry is facing a substantial skills shortage problem, and the problem seems to be particularly acute for geotechnical specialists.

Chartered engineers and engineering geologists in their late 20s and early 30s are especially scarce because of the recession in the early 1990s.

We are not alone in facing this issue; many professions are reporting similar recruitment problems.Moreover, the shortage of staff is not confined to graduates and chartered professionals but also extends to technicians, tradesmen and school-leavers of suitable calibre to be trained for these jobs.

Why has this situation developed? The causes are complex, but one overriding factor appears to be indisputable: potential recruits are being attracted by higher salaries in other professions and industries.The clearest evidence for this comes from the increasing numbers of graduates from civil engineering degree courses who accept jobs in other sectors.The falling number of new entrants to civil engineering degree courses will further compound the problem.

Against this background, the findings of the Mirza & Nacey and NCE+ survey make sobering reading.The survey showed that the range of average (median) hourly charge-out rates for consultant civil engineers was:

Partner/director £65

Senior chartered engineer £45

Graduate £30

A quick analysis of these rates indicates that the partners/directors might be on a salary of about £40,000 and the senior chartered engineer might be on a salary of about £27,500 (based on 1600 hours chargeable time per year and a mark-up of 2.6 to cover indirect employment costs, overheads and profit).Are these really the level of salaries that we aspire to?

The most positive news for engineers from this survey comes from a comparison with earlier surveys of architects (July 2000) and quantity surveyors (July 1999); partner/ director level positions in those professions attract even lower charge-out rates of £60 and £50 per hour respectively.

In contrast, civil engineers'rates compare significantly less favourably with broadly similar posts in professions outside construction.The size of the gap is apparent from data provided by Aziz Mirza (based on a limited sample rather than a full survey), originally published in Building magazine with the results of Mirza & Nacey's 1999 survey of quantity surveyors'rates:

Solicitors - senior partner £220

Barristers with more than 10 years'experience £172

Marketing consultant £187

These rates are the crux of our skills shortage problem.

I do not believe that engineers consider themselves as a second-rate profession, nor do we wish to be seen as such, yet that is the logical conclusion that would be drawn from an impartial review of the situation.

So what is to be done to improve the rates that civil engineers are able to command? Some argue that market forces are the only means by which these rate differentials can be altered, and there is no denying that market forces are a powerful influence.However, if we leave the issue to market forces alone, the skills shortage will become acute before any significant change happens.We can, and must, take a more positive approach.

In short, we need to have more confidence in the value of our skills and we must be prepared to take that message to our clients.

Within the industry there is wide acceptance that implementation of good practice requires competent, appropriately trained and adequately remunerated engineers, but clients'eyes will glaze over if we feed them dry lists of good practice guidance to justify higher rates.

What will grab a client's attention are examples of savings of time and/or money achieved on real projects.The Value of Geotechnics in Construction conferences provide a useful source of case histories for this purpose, by illustrating the benefits of following good practice.

We must emphasise the positive benefits that clients reap from appointing appropriately trained geotechnical specialists at realistic rates of remuneration, rather than focusing on predictions of problems that may arise when inadequate resources are made available.Once this message is taken on board by clients, geotechnical engineering will become a more attractive career, and resolution of the skills shortage problem will be one step nearer.

Keith Gabriel is the new chairman of the Association of Geotechnical and Geoenvironmental Specialists and technical director at Weeks Group.

Further details of the survey can be found at www.nceplus.co.uk and www.mirza-nacey.com

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