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TALKING POINT

Paul Kiss asks if the engineering profession is being devalued.

Not before time, engineers' salaries are at last beginning to catch up with those of other professions.

In the 1970s, when I decided to go into civil engineering, salary levels were competitive.

The profession attracted about 4000 good-quality students each year and most were British nationals with the intention of remaining in the country.

By the mid-1980s, the number of graduates on civil engineering courses was beginning to drop dramatically - despite falling entrance requirements.

Of those, a signicant proportion were foreign nationals graduating with the intention of returning overseas.

By the millennium, universities were struggling to attract graduates to the sector. The situation is now so severe that a graph showing applications to first degree courses since 1994 describes a disturbing linear fall.

To compound the issue, at one university, only one of the final year civil engineering students intends to stay in the industry after graduating.

The remainder are heading for positions in the City, IT and elsewhere.

If we have learned anything, it is that these other salaries will continue to outstrip ination for probably another 10 years before beginning a gradual decline for a further 20, until the levels are so unattractive that few school leavers will be attracted to the industry. This will lead to a shortage in engineers and away we go again - the salaries increase as companies compete for limited resources.

Engineers are undervalued in their professional standing. A good engineer is a highly skilled, rounded individual, with the ability to address a wide range of issues. They have skills in design, estimating, contract management and nancial matters, combined with an ability to communicate well both verbally and in writing. This is probably a more diverse range of skills than many other professions.

Yet despite this, and with no disrespect to other callings, we nd the term 'rodent disposal engineer' attached to rat catcher or 'refuse disposal engineer' confused with 'ofcer'.

In the UK, the title 'engineer' simply does not have enough kudos attached to it, whereas in the European Union it is regarded as being one of the top professions.

Then there is the issue of fees. Too many clients, as Oscar Wilde said, 'know the price of everything and the value of nothing'. As with most things in life you get what you pay for and accurate specication is paramount, requiring total competency and mutual respect between client and consultant.

These are unlikely to be achieved by shopping around to save a half per cent on the fee and treating the whole issue as a commodity-based transaction.

We all need to pull together on this and address the various issues - including the collective engineering institutions.

Let's start by limiting the term to those who are genuinely qualied and/or chartered. Make it a title of which to be proud, belonging to an industry with high standards, otherwise it will continue to face a colossal drop in both the number and quality of available graduates.

Speaking as an employer, I recall placing advertisements for engineers in the early 1980s and receiving 70 applications, of which a good percentage were high-quality candidates.

Two years ago I placed a similar advert that achieved only one low calibre response, highlighting the steady decline.

Specialist companies in particular are feeling the effect of this. The future of such companies depends on nding bright graduates who can learn and develop skills in areas such as piling and pile design - something not taught to any meaningful level outside the specialist companies themselves.

We have a graduate training scheme at our company and there are few things more rewarding than explaining something to a bright, young graduate who quickly grasps the topic and moves on.

Now salaries are becoming more realistic again, let's introduce a sense of pride back into the industry and not let it become undervalued.

Paul Kiss is chairman of contractor Abbey Pynford.

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