Salaries are moving upwards fast in the current skills crisis. But do you know what you are worth in today's market? To help you we sent NCE's reporters out to get jobs as engineers through some of the leading recruitment consultancies.
This is what they found.
INFOPLUS Thanks to Matchtech Engineering; contact - Jake Jessie, (01489) 898100 Email jake@matchtech. co. uk Hays Montrose - contact Sam Philpott, (020) 7931 8978 Email victora. mk@hays-montrose. com BBT - contact Ed Twaite, (020) 7828 1555 Email ovs1@bbt. co. uk
Structural engineer, 1 year s experience
Name: Alan Sparks
Qualification: BEng Civil & Structural Engineering, University of Plymouth
Experience: One year structural engineer.
A graduate engineer with my experience could reasonably expect to find a position with a salary in the region of £21,000 in the South East, according to recruitment agency MatchTech.
Structural engineers are in great demand, although an extra year's experience would have significantly increased my earning power. It would have pushed my worth up towards £25,000, which appears to be the limit for young, unchartered engineers.
Finding a job as an engineer today is very easy. I called the agency on a Monday and could have had half a dozen interviews by the end of that week. A company car seemed out of the question, and pension schemes would have been non-contributory. Getting short term contract work would have been difficult for a young engineer like me, as most firms look for experienced engineers who can work without supervision.
A lot of opportunities exist in the specialist area of bridge design, although it is worth considering that much of the work is centred around maintenance. Although I only have structural design experience, a shift into transport management or highways was a genuine option.
Earnings potential in the buoyant transport sector is strong with good promotion opportunities.
Most recruitment agencies receive a percentage of an employee's starting salary. By initially offering an artificially low wage the employer pays proportionally less to the agency. It is not unheard of for firms to increase employees' salaries to more realistic levels after an initial period.
Finding a position off your own bat makes it possible to obtain even better terms, as the agency's cut could also come your way. But using an agency does mean negotiations are handled by professionals on your behalf.
Through personal contacts I did manage to find a suitable firm myself and could even have picked up an extra couple of grand.
Civil & structural, 2 years experience
Name: Nina Lovelace
Qualifications: BEng Civil & Structural Engineering
Experience: One year water supply structures design and computer modelling, one year site supervision on pipelines
I have been out of the industry for 18 months, but I could expect a top salary of £26,000 if I returned to water engineering, according to Ed Twaite, associate director of recruitment consultant Beresford Blake Thomas (BBT). This would be for a permanent job in London, probably working for one of the top consultants with use of a car, he adds.
However, he warned me that before I approached NCE's editor with my resignation note I could expect to earn at least £2,000 less if I moved out of the capital. I have two years' engineering experience with Mott MacDonald's water supply division, a year of which was spent supervising pipeline and reservoir sites.
Although not chartered, before I left my job with Motts in 2000 I had signed off 95% of my training objectives and had good all round experience.
Because of this, consultants working for the Environment Agency - in all kinds of roles from flood defence to water resources - would been keen to snap me up, says Twaite.
This is because the Agency has reduced the number of consultants it employs but still has the same amount of work, he adds. As a result the consultants are taking on more staff.
Water companies and consultants working for water utilities on their 2000-2005 asset management plans are also looking for staff with a water background.
Many of them need expertise to help them bring assets like wastewater treatment plants and combined sewer outfalls up to European standards.
Twaite also says there are plenty of overseas opportunities where I could even find salaries of up to £30,000.
'Qatar is very busy because it is staging the Asian Olympic Games in 2006, ' he reports. Because of this the city is busy improving its infrastructure, especially sewerage and drainage, to cope with the expected crowds.
Dubai, Abu Dhabi, China, Ireland and Saudi Arabia are also booming, although Twaite says there may still be some problems finding work for a woman in the Middle East.
He also points out that contacts or family in Ireland could secure me a job there overnight.
Overseas jobs often require chartered status, Twaite says, but if the demand is there this may not be essential. And contract work is very lucrative with fees of up to £18/hr available in London and £15/hr elsewhere.
Civil engineer, 3 years in water industry
Name: Mark Hansford
Qualifications: MEng, Civil Engineering with Management
Experience: Three years in water distribution systems design and management If I had stayed in civil engineering
I would now be worth £26,000, according to recruitment consultant Hays Montrose (HM). During my three years working as a graduate water engineer for a leading UK consultant my salary never even threatened to reach such heights.
With graduate starting salaries between £17,000 and £20,000, an engineer with three years' experience can now expect between £23,500 and £26,000, explains HM consultant Stuart Church.
Utility companies offer the best packages, although the big names in consulting all have broadly comparable opportunities.
However, the water market is not a strong one, warns Church, although the indications are that demand is growing. But in the short term: 'Water has all but dried up, ' he says, 'The luxury we have is that when a good CV comes along, many companies will create room for you. They are all gambling on how long the market will be down, but it is a bad time for contract staff.'
Selling your services as a contractor is a tremendous growth sector, explains HM consultant Gail Craven. 'British engineers see the rates that Antipodean engineers get and think 'I want the same'. Loads of British engineers are going contracting, ' she says.
The key to a successful move to contracting is having a specific skill to sell, according to HM consultant Cheryl Donovan. 'People with a specific skill can command a better rate, as they can be fitted directly into a specific job.'
My three years' experience, focused largely on the design and management of water distribution systems, puts me in this category. This, despite the current lull, would still command the 'relatively good' rate of £16/hr to £18/hr, Donovan claims.
Donovan feels that recruitment in the water industry is being hampered by a lack of knowledge of the jobs available, and of the candidates to fill them. 'Many clients look only one way for recruitment, or use just one recruitment firm, ' she says. 'They need to be aware of the breadth and depth of skills out there.'
And specific skills are not essential. 'Many graduates with two or three years' experience are doing well at the moment, ' Donovan adds. 'Firms are often more interested in the candidate - whether they are personable, hardworking and will fit into the office environment - than in the candidate's experience. It is very dependent on the client, and on the contracts they are winning.'
Civil engineer, five years in contracting
Name: Steve Turner
Qualifications: BEng Civil Engineering.
Experience: One year with local authority and five years with a main contractor.
Worked on highways, bridge, water treatment works and building contracts as a site engineer. Duties included planning, setting out, checking, client liaison, and sub contractor supervision.
Working toward Chartered status, with agreement signed off.
Recruitment consultant Hays Montrose (HM) says that an engineer with my experience, who is still in construction, could easily get a job in central London. It has a main contractor looking for a site engineer with 3 to 4 years' UK experience, willing to pay a salary of £29,000 plus benefits.
The job would be working on a major building contract including infrastructure, services and foundation works.
I would have been in charge of the civils work, including concrete and reinforcement works.
The £29,000 salary was plus car, pension, and health plan, taking the value of the package up to around £35,000.
The second suitable vacancy was with a main contractor with a number of sites in the South East. The job involves working on various projects in the region, going from contract to contract to provide engineering input where and when required.
This package includes a salary of £28,000 with similar benefits to the other job, taking the total value to approximately £34,000.
Working as a contract engineer pays better, and the agency says there is more work than there are available engineers. Engineers and clients recognise this and a lot of the engineers who pass through the HM books are not interested in full time employment.
Were I still in construction I could expect to be paid about £17/hr. PAYE would reduce this to about £15/hr.
HM points out that the jobs on offer are all in central London. This means they will mostly be building jobs as opposed to civil engineering, as there are 'not a lot of major road jobs on central London'.
A central London location means higher salaries than elsewhere in the country.
Chartered civil, 7 years experience
Name: Diarmaid Fleming
Qualifications: BEng (Civil) University College Dublin 1987, Chartered Engineer Institution of Engineers of Ireland 1994.
Experience: Three years' general experience on temporary contracts, including site and design office work on building and civil engineering projects with around half on railway schemes.
Four years' experience on maritime structures, both design and site supervision with Orkney Islands Council, and design with consultant Posford Duvivier.
It comes as something of a surprise to find that despite a seven year career break from engineering spent in journalism, my salary prospects could be up to double what they were when I last wielded a T-square or twiddled a theodolite in anger in 1994. Assuming a crude rate of inflation of 3% a year since then, my 1994 salary of £17,500 would have risen only to £21,500 by now. Low pay then was a major factor in my decision to switch to journalism. So a starting salary of £24,000 today would represent a modest improvement, although not one to send me rushing out of the doors of NCE in search of the nearest consultant.
Hourly paid contract work would offer rates of £15/hr to £20/hr. With 3% inflation, £20 would equate to £14.50/hr in 1990. This is well below what a design engineer could earn before the recession hit.
Working for a contractor or project management firm would appear to be where the real money is, with £35,000 plus a car on offer. Again with inflation at 3%, this would have meant around £28,500 in 1994, a better deal than was likely to be offered then as a scan through the thin ad pages in NCE at the time shows.
Allowing for longer hours, the disparity with consultancy work appears suprisingly large.
According to recruitment consultant Beresford Blake Thomas (BBT), jobs with contractors could also include bonuses of up to 10%.
To get the best offers, BBT associate director Ed Twaite recommends anyone looking for a job to choose the type of work they want and tailor their CV by emphasising relevant experience, rather than presenting the total chronology of their experience as I did.
Including a number of shortterm agency contracts can make the CV look crowded.
'Some might say there's a bit too many various bits which can be a downside, but that can be turned to your advantage. If you have no preference as to what kind of work you do, I would recommend drawing up two separate CVs, one for design work and one for contracting, ' says Twaite. While I specialised in maritime related work for four years, other areas of work would be open, he adds.
One major change from 1994 is the boom in jobs in Ireland. Back then, even getting an interview would have constituted a major coup in what was a graveyard for work.
'It could take around a month to get you a job in the UK, but in Ireland you could get one overnight. Irish employers are keen on Irish people coming home because they are likely to stay and give a long term commitment, ' says Twaite.
Having said that, higher tax rates and expensive living costs in Dublin would have to be weighed up.
Experienced senior engineer Name: Dave Parker Age: 57 Qualifications: BSc, CEng, MICE, FIQA Experience: Twelve years as technical director, specialist contractor and/or project manager, structural consultant.
Previous three years - technical marketing director, specialist products company.
Previous five years - senior partner of small consultancy specialising in high tech materials and forensic engineering.
After 12 years in journalism it was decided that it would be almost impossible for me to return to mainstream engineering, so a fake CV was agreed with recruitment agency MatchTech as the basis for this exercise. The CV assumes that I had remained in the industry, but reflects my real engineering experience.
My first surprise was that what I saw as a major problem - my advancing years - would not be a serious barrier to finding another job. The real problem, if I was looking for a permanent position, would be the salary I might expect.
It was assumed that someone with my experience and qualifications could be on £50,000 a year or more, plus car and other benefits, and probably some form of incentive scheme. No recruitment agency has jobs like this on file. If I wanted to maintain my salary level the agency would have to go job seeking for me among its major clients. However, if I was prepared to drop to something like £45,000 plus car etc, the agency reckoned it would have little difficulty in finding me a position in relatively short order.
Becoming a Fellow of the ICE would have little effect on my expectations, the agency believed. The same applied to contract work in the design office - indeed, even chartered status was not seen as essential provided the skills and experience were there. Age again was irrelevant - contract staff get a flat rate regardless of age and qualifications.
The only caveat is that the 'trendy' high profile consultants tend to prefer younger contract staff. 'Trads' are happy to accept any age - MatchTech says it has one bridge engineer still working in a design office at the ripe old age of 73. Experienced structural and civil designers could expect somewhere between £23/hr and £27.50/hr. So, had I the skills and the opportunity, I could gross more than £50,000 - but there would be no car and no benefits. And there is said to be plenty of work out there.