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Three ways to save our species

EDUCATION & TRAINING

Barry Clarke argues that the shortage of geotechnical engineers needs to be tackled on several fronts.

Government figures show that the construction industry, employer of two million people, has a shortage of about 2% on its hands. The figure is the worst for any sector and will continue.

Geotechnical engineers are in such short supply that the Home Office recently relaxed immigration rules for them.

The problem is not confined to the UK: Australia, Canada and New Zealand have also identified geotechnical engineers as key workers.

Because of their varied backgrounds, most geotechnical engineers have followed a conversion MSc programme before entering the industry and so most have a specialist qualification.

To understand the reasons for the skills shortage there are three issues to consider: the supply of suitably qualified students, the supply of appropriate courses and the supply of funds for training.

The government wants to create a sustainable society in which the quality of life will improve through innovation, led by the higher education sector working in partnership with industry.

This will require a skilled workforce which includes engineers.

How else will the government deliver its housing, education, health and transport policies?

There have been many initiatives to encourage students to study science leading to an engineering career. The Royal Academy of Engineering, the Engineering Technology Board and the Institution of Civil Engineers have all run schemes promoting engineering.

The most recent initiative was the launch last month of Regional Science Learning Centres to help motivate teachers of science.

But the central factor contributing to the dearth of students entering vocational programmes is the lack of information about engineering available to young people and their advisers. Where are the role models, the heroes, and the sources of information?

The government would like half of 18-year-olds to go to university. Universities are being encouraged to become more inclusive and innovative by providing a diverse range of courses meeting students' aspirations and capabilities.

Engineering programmes have to compete with more attractive ones such as media studies and computing science, which are driven by the increasing interest in digital media. Yet the use of these innovative techniques is widespread in engineering.

Engineering is perceived as a poorly paid profession, yet in 2001 salaries started at about £20k and rose to £50k, with an average of £30k - about the average for all professionals. Has the profession still not understood how to improve its profile and status to demonstrate that an engineering career is exciting, challenging, innovative and well-paid?

To strengthen the life-long learning process, the government introduced Sector Skills Councils. Their brief is to reduce skills gaps and shortages;

increase opportunities for members of the workforce to develop their careers; and improve the supply of learning options. There is a view that this is the first step in a more transparent and focused management of the supply of suitably skilled workforce rather than leaving it to chance as it is at the moment.

If there is to be a suitably skilled workforce, the educational base and professional development of that workforce needs to be considered.

The introduction of competency levels by the UK Spec, the replacement for SARTOR (Standards and Routes to Registration); the interpretation of that Spec by the Joint Board of Moderators; and the implementation of lifelong learning skills will lead to broader based first degrees which focus on core skills rather than fundamental engineering concepts and principles.

It is interesting to note that an engineer has to reach a level of competency to enter the profession but does not have to maintain competency levels. Should engineering become a regulated profession?

While geotechnics will be explicitly recognised as a core subject for a first degree under UK Spec, it will not necessarily be taken to the competency levels needed by the geotechnical engineering profession.

This must be tackled in three ways. First, the number of students following MSc programmes in geotechnical engineering must be increased. Second, industry has to work with universities to develop lifelong learning programmes. Third, industry has to develop in-house training or specialist training centres.

All of this will require funding.

Most construction consultancies - 97% - employ fewer than 50 people; while 60% of the two million people employed in the construction industry work in 99% of the companies that employ fewer than 50 people.

This means industry is unlikely to fund full-time MSc programmes because of the cost of training and the loss of fee earning time. In-house training will not raise the levels of skill across the sector since it will tend to be focused in the larger companies, which only affects 40% of the workforce.

And while the industry's major client, the government, recognises the skills shortage, it is encouraging development of funding of innovative MSc programmes in 'sunrise' industries. It is also moving towards the idea that graduates should pay for their training as they will benefit in the long term.

The skills shortage will only be alleviated if schools and the public are supplied with information, if the profile and status of engineering are raised, and if there are properly structured and funded training programmes to ensure geotechnical engineers achieve correct competency levels.

The construction industry needs to speak with one voice to provide a focus for engineers - there are more than 200 organisations representing their interests.

Clients need to be aware of their social responsibility and ensure they only employ competent engineers. And engineers must be held responsible for their work to raise standards.

Universities and industry need to work with government to develop and fund appropriate specialist courses that are both flexible and innovative in their content and delivery.

Barry Clarke is chairman of industry umbrella body Ground Forum and professor of geotechnical engineering at Newcastle University.

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