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It is now easier to obtain UK work permits for geotechnical engineers from overseas, says Rodney Chartres.

The profession is coming to terms with the shortage of qualified ground engineers, particularly those in their thirties. The reasons for the shortage are well documented: a combination of the slump in the construction industry, an associated dip in graduate starting salaries, and the appeal of the megabucks the the financial sector was offering for those with geo-related degrees.

These factors were not helped by the image of our industry and the lack of school-leavers attracted to studying for ground engineering degrees.

Many employers resorted to recruiting staff from other EU countries, the former Soviet bloc, South East Asia, Southern Africa and the Antipodes. This has shortterm benefits for both parties.

However, having gained experience, many young post-graduates return to their home countries to join firms with a burgeoning ground engineering workload as rapidly expanding economies spend large sums on complex infrastructure.

A few years ago the UK Government introduced a revised work permits scheme, administered through the Home Office, which included the 'shortage occupation list'.

This resulted in employers having to complete a lengthy form explaining the advertising procedure that had been followed, the lack of response from both UK and EU nationals and why the post had to be filled by someone from overseas.

Ground Forum, which represents UK bodies connected with ground engineering, lobbied the Home Office to include ground engineers on the shortage occupation list. It has taken about 18 months, but we have now succeeded, and the list's definition of ground engineering is a wide one.

This change makes it easier for UK employers to recruit ground engineering professionals from overseas to fill vacancies caused by the skills shortages.

The Home Office recognises the following disciplines under the category of ground engineering: engineering geologist, geoenvironmental engineer, geological analyst, geological associate, geological engineer, geologist/ hydrogeologist, geology/reservoir engineer, geomechanics engineer, geophysical specialist, geophysicist, geoscientist, geosupport engineer, geotechnical adviser, geotechnical engineer, ground engineer, contaminated land specialist.

This broad definition means, in effect, that employers will no longer have to prove a professional post could not be filled by recruiting within the UK or the EU.

Influencing government for the benefit of employers in the construction industry is a great achievement by Ground Forum.

Details of the new and much simplified application process for work permits may be found at www. workingintheuk. gov. uk The practical effect is that, when completing the form for an overseas applicant's work permit, the employer can jump from page 7 to page 12 - a significant saving of time and administrative effort.

It should be recognised that this is only a temporary solution to part of the problem. Ground Forum is constantly reminding government of the necessity for a highly qualified and experienced ground engineering indusry and is working through the Construction Industry Council to achieve this aim.

It is encouraging for the future to see the renaissance of ground engineering, with courses full at Portsmouth University and, to some extent, elsewhere.

How embarrassing it would be for the UK if it is unable to deliver on time the necessary infrastructure in both London and the Thames Gateway to host the 2012 Olympics.

The Lea Valley has some complex geoenvironmental challenges!

The future of ground engineering in the UK has not looked so bright for a generation.

Rodney Chartres is chairman of Ground Forum and a director of geoenvironmental specialist Rural Arisings.

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