International postings are becoming a thing of the past - and the profession is losing out.
Diarmaid Fleming investigates.
Ask someone in the street what a career in engineering means, and the chances are they'll mention building bridges and working internationally. But just as many engineers never work on bridges in their lives, the image of the suntanned engineer building new infrastructure in far-flung lands is largely wide of the mark.
Senior engineers say that the days of the long-term expatriate posting are gone. 'There are now fewer opportunities for young engineers to work abroad than before, ' says consultant Scott Wilson group chairman Geoff French. 'Many young people join us with the hope and expectation of working overseas. Where we can, we still like to send people abroad because it helps in their development. But it has always been difficult to get abroad for the first time when you have no overseas experience. And with less scope now for working overseas all-round, there are fewer chances to get that first essential posting.'
Others agree. 'In the 1970s, the good old days, a site supervision job in Saudi, say, could have a staff of 10 or 12 expatriate engineers, and you could get graduates out as assistants on site. Now, if you bid for a supervision job overseas, you might get one or two slots for key staff at the top, but you staff the job locally. Expertise available around the world is improving, and while we are still getting people out, we are selling rather more of our grey hair than our youth, ' says Henry Rowe, ports division director at consultant Posford Haskoning.
Rowe and French, like many of their generation, have forged careers underpinned by extensive overseas experience.
The opportunity to work in far-off lands was an essential feature of the profession and attracted many to become civil engineers in the first place.
Aside from the excitement of travel, the enhanced rates of pay and subsistence from a posting to Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong or Africa was a perk of the profession that compensated for poor pay in the UK.
But apart from travel and money, the unique experience and exposure gained from working abroad proved invaluable for professional development. 'A young engineer matures and grows in confidence and stature after working abroad.
And although they have head office support, they are in the front line making decisions and dealing with clients directly, ' says Rowe.
'It is the breadth of what you do and the leeway you get to take on as much responsibility as people are prepared to give you that is so invaluable. Rather than being a cog in a big machine, you are a key member of a small team and really you can have as much input as you want, ' adds French.
'When you work with people abroad, you get to know them much better. It also gives you a better understanding of how different groups of people operate. People who have not worked overseas tend to think that the rest of the world thinks as we do, which it doesn't, ' he says.
People coming back from assignments abroad often show a marked change in their approach to work, says Rowe's colleague Simon Harries, who previously headed up the firm's operation in the Malaysian state of Sabah, Borneo.
'Without doubt it makes a difference to a young engineer and accelerates their development. A person becomes very self-sufficient, and is better able to make considered decisions without reference to too many people. Working overseas can be a solitary existence, and when a person returns they tend to come back more mature, ' says Harries.
Other benefits can also result from working on the different phases of a single project over a long period, rather than a range of different jobs.
Greater understanding of the needs of colleagues and improving team working can follow from overseas work too, either as part of a team posted overseas, or through interaction with head office. 'If someone is on the phone at five o'clock, pleading 'The Minister needs the drawings tomorrow', if you have worked abroad you'll understand what that means for the person at the other end of the line, and you'll stay to help, ' says Rowe.
There are fewer opportunities around for a variety of reasons.
New technology has had a dramatic impact on engineering - the fax which revolutionised sending information like drawings and sketches has been eclipsed by email, the internet, and mobile phone communications, just as ink drawings and hand calculations have made way for computer aided design and draughting. But while improved communications technology has made the world a smaller place and opened up new markets, in engineering it has meant less need to travel, says Harries.
Wiser clients keen to use local and often cheaper expertise, and stiffer competition among firms are other factors.
'The world has become more competitive. Clients aren't prepared to pay to have an expat working on a job, and the capabilities of engineers in many local markets has improved. A lot more work is being done locally - it has become possible to resource jobs using people recruited locally, ' says Harries.
The loss of opportunity in today's stay-at-home profession is most acutely felt by the generation of engineers who worked abroad and benefited from the experience rather than those who are missing out today and who may not appreciate the benefits.
While no-one argues that it is essential to an engineer's development, in some cases spreading your wings can almost be a prerequisite to promotion.
'For people who aspire to senior management positions in organisations with significant overseas operations, it is a major advantage to have worked abroad, ' says French.
Relief work has often provided another route abroad for engineers. But the difficulty in obtaining overseas experience has led to a Catch 22 situation, according to engineering charity RedR - Registered Engineers for Disaster Relief.
'There is a logjam. Agencies want people with overseas experience. We have plenty of engineers who want to go but do not have experience of working abroad. We are trying to convince the agencies that many of these engineers don't lack knowledge and expertise, ' says RedR operations manager Neil Casey.
But getting firms to release experienced staff is equally difficult. 'We are trying to convince companies of the benefit of sending people abroad and the experience they gain which they wouldn't get on conventional projects, ' he adds.
How to get away
Many firms operating internationally send people abroad only as the needs of the business dictate. One large firm told NCEI it 'doesn't operate a 'graduate circus' for people to gain experience in other parts of the business'.
This attitude is seemingly in conflict with UK engineering firms' ongoing battle to attract and retain staff. Firms which do offer travel opportunities say this helps retain staff, and others are now looking at ways of widening horizons as an opportunity for themselves as well as their employees.
Parsons Brinckerhoff is examining setting up an exchange scheme for staff between different countries, says technical director and chair of the firm's career development committee, Dr Steve Denton.
Engineering's trend away from traditional consultancy has also affected overseas work. Straightforward, traditional consultancy work has always offered the best possibilities to those looking to work abroad, says Posford Haskoning's Henry Rowe. This is particularly true where a firm has specialist 'niche' work like Posford's in maritime engineering or environmental work.
More local expertise and the revolution in global communications has reduced the opportunities for engineers to work abroad. But one firm quick to spot the potential for winning more business and doing work more competitively using local staff is Pell Frischmann. Its India office in Mumbai was set up in 1995 with a team of expat engineers and is now a thriving operation with 200 local staff.
Around six senior engineers began the operation. Now there are only one or two expat engineers involved.
Salaries are up to four times that on offer with local firms, meaning that the best engineers are attracted, but are still substantially lower than the salaries of British engineers.
While the office generates its own work from the local market, some is process type work such as reinforcement detailing which can be handled almost like a subcontracted package by the office.