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The long & short of skills

Booming workloads have put the skills crisis firmly back on the agenda. What are the short and long-term fixes asks John McKenna.

When it comes to skills (or the lack of them) in construction, many in the industry must feel the same despair as Sisyphus, forever
condemned to tackling the issue with little success.

Government training body CITB-Construction Skills' report that a boom in work over the next four years will require an extra 88,400 staff annually must have had many clients, consultants and contractors banging their heads against walls: despite investment in apprenticeships, sponsorships and in-house training schemes, the skills gap only seems to get wider (News, last week).

Of course, the 88,400 figure refer to all trades in the industry and the CITB-Construction Skills' report's category covering civil engineers – "construction professionals and technical staff" – shows the considerably lower figure of 12110 staff needed every year by now and 2012.

However, this is still a tough target and one that is unlikely to be met by UK graduates alone: despite a 45% increase in applications to civil engineering courses since 2002, there are only 2,500 students starting courses a year. With an 11.7% dropout rate and many graduates still preferring careers in finance and accountancy, it looks likely that university leavers will fail to provide the solution to the short-term crisis and the industry's longer term needs.

So how does the industry avert the imminent skills crisis, and in the longer term, how does it avoid yet more shortages when the next boom in UK construction comes along?

Short term

Finders' fees for employees
Why pay recruitment consultants when your staff can headhunt for you? Firms such as consultant Halcrow and contractor Bovis Lend Lease are offering up to £5,000 to employees that recruit friends and former colleagues. Atkins offers up to £3,000 per referral and in the past 12 months has paid £180,000 in "recruitment fees" to its own staff.

Firms using such incentive schemes say they are highly effective, but at the end of the day it is very much a micro-economic solution: it does nothing to solve the skills shortage within the industry, but merely solves the staffing problems of individual firms.

Allowing more foreign workers into the UK
Construction may have survived on a diet of Eastern European labourers in recent years, but very few of the highly skilled roles such as civil engineering posts are from this demographic.

Last month the Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE) called on the Home Office to add engineering, including civil, structural, mechanical and electrical disciplines to its list of professions with skills shortages. This would make it easier to recruit from nations outside the EU. ACE chief executive Nelson Ogunshakin admitted it was a pragmatic short-term solution for the industry's current needs. As a long-term strategy, however, it is risky, given its dependence on pen pushers in Whitehall.

Outsourcing work overseas
It has been done with call centres, why not with engineering consultancies? Many firms in the Middle East feed back design work to their UK offices, and consultant Atkins has taken this one step further. It has set up an office in Bangalore, India to work remotely on UK projects.
Typically, new Indian employees will spend their first six to 12 months with Atkins in the UK on student or temporary worker visas, learning the company's approach to work and understanding its culture. They will also meet Atkins' UK engineers and project clients they will be working for.

Once back in Bangalore, the engineers usually work on early design and planning. As well as the benefit of easing UK-based engineers' workload, it has also delivered considerable cost savings for Atkins.
Unfortunately, international outsourcing is far from being a realistic option for contractors.

Long term

Boost media presence and appeal to young people
When he was ICE president, Gordon Masterton launched his "Engineering Media Challenge" in 2006, offering £35,000 of his own money to people who could present engineers as positive role models in books, television and computer games. Far from being frivolous, Masterton was reflecting his members' concerns that the UK's mainstream media is by and large ignorant of the role that engineers play in society; architects like Norman Foster and Richard Rogers are household names, but ask the average person to name you two famous engineers, and most likely the answer will be Brunel and Telford.

Engineers, both real and fictional, need to get in front of the camera more to make the profession attractive to a generation weaned on mass media.

As Pete Waterman points out on page 18, construction already has a massive media hit in the form of Bob the Builder, and more needs to be done to provide entertainment that can progress children's seemingly innate interest in construction. As Waterman suggests, as well as media coverage, this may also mean taking school parties on site as a matter of course.

Improving training
Olympic Delivery Authority chairman John Armitt said last week that the industry was failing to provide enough training provision and should avoid depending on the government for solutions (News, last week).

With a 45% increase in entrants to civil engineering degrees between 2002 and 2007, clearly the traditional route of MSc Hons is improving in its attractiveness. But in a world of tuition fees and high living costs, this route is likely to keep the demographic of engineers tied to the white middle classes, something the institutions are keen to move away from.

Sponsorships will help relatively few, so the solution would seem to be career-based training schemes. The challenge here is twofold: make teachers aware of the possibilities for a career in engineering through such routes; and for more companies outside the biggest firms to invest in schemes such as day-release apprenticeships.

Increasing salaries
Last, but certainly not least, is the economist's solution: pay more. It is a simple, if painful solution. After all, while many teenagers may dream of being a pop star or footballer, by the time they leave university plenty head for a career in the City of London. Why? It has nothing to do with media exposure to careers in banking, and everything to do with the size of the salaries.

According to the pure economist's view, as the skills shortage worsens, salaries will rise, more people will be attracted to a career in construction.

This may well be the case, but it is unlikely to happen without at least a small increase in positive publicity for engineers.

Recruitment challenge

According to CITB-ConstructionSkills' latest report, some 88,400 new workers will be needed in construction between 2008 and 2012. Infrastructure growth of 5.7% will feed this demand with projects such as the 2012 Olympics, Crossrail, Thameslink, Birmingham New Street redevelopment and a £3bn transport investment in Scotland. Some 2.8M people are employed in an industry that by 2012 will have seen output grow by a third since 2008.

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