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Training plan

Training is one of the keys to success in business. Over the next four pages NCE highlights problems faced by civil engineers and examines the steps being taken to resolve them.

New Civil Engineer's recent questionnaire on industry training drew a big response and reflected the strength of your views on the subject. Antony Oliver looks at why engineers feel let down by their bosses.

Be honest: your fundamental problem is not high interest rates or a high pound. It is too few managers, too little investment, too little productivity.'

This advice to businessmen came from Prime Minister Tony Blair during his speech at last week's Labour Party conference. The message is clear; companies need to invest in their own businesses - their staff in particular - before they can blame the Government for their ills.

If the results of New Civil Engineer's questionnaire on training in the civil engineering industry are anything to go by, Blair may well have a point. Questionnaires faxed and sent to NCE over the last month indicate that huge numbers of engineers work for companies that are under investing in career development.

One in four engineers replying to NCE's poll said their company failed to provide them with training. One third of graduates said they were not getting the training necessary for them to become chartered.

Perhaps more worrying was the revelation that half said they had no training manager to oversee their career development. And while a third of engineers are trying to become chartered, the survey shows that half have to do so without any help from a member of staff specifically looking after their training.

It could of course be argued that only disgruntled engineers reply to such a poll. But unfortunately for the industry this shabby picture of career development in construction is backed up by research carried out by the Construction Industry Council-backed Training Organisation for Professionals in Construction.

TOPIC questioned consultants about their training attitudes and practice. Its research revealed that nearly 68% of firms admitted that they did not have a staff member responsible for employee training. The results also reveal that only one in three firms had training programmes for new or existing staff.

So it appears that construction is showing little enthusiasm for its employees' professional development. There is a failure to invest in skills training for the engineers who will provide the industry's backbone in the next millennium.

Many engineers are angry and frustrated about employers' attitudes to training, judging from comments written on the NCE survey forms.

'Training is not planned,' writes one. 'It is very difficult to find funding or encouragement from my employer,' says another. 'Effective training post-chartered is a lottery,' adds another.

The picture is of employees struggling to combine their busy working lives with opportunities to develop their careers and grow their levels of expertise.

'Employers have yet to fully appreciate the investment training provides. Continuing Professional Development is regarded as a luxury,' is a comment that many will recognise throughout the construction industry.

It is exactly what Blair was getting at in his speech. The fact is that developing the skills and careers of employees is a vital trick that much of British industry is missing - civil engineering included.

It is true that the construction industry is making great efforts to bring itself into a new era of competitiveness and efficiency. Sir John Egan's recent Construction Task Force report and the Latham review which preceded it have been instrumental in making the industry realise that to be competitive - to survive - it must drag itself into the modern world.

Openness, non-confrontational working, partnering and lean construction are fairly universally accepted as the way forward. But all this has to be driven by engineers, many of whom complain of inadequate training and lack career direction.

As a result there is a danger that reform will be stymied as frustrated professionals leave the industry to pursue more rewarding, better trained, careers in other sectors.

'My training agreement has been badly administered and structured and has taken a poor second place to other company commitments', said one disillusioned respondent to NCE's poll. 'Employers are keen to ensure that training is suggested but less keen to release staff for it'; 'There is no structure to training. All courses taken in own time', said others.

The Institution of Civil Engineers director of professional development Richard Larcombe agrees that companies have got to get to grips with training if they are going to be successful. But he points out that the results of NCE's poll show a large number of engineers are being well trained.

'There is no problem for the good firms and the good engineers. At the top end it is fine. The problem seems to be with the smaller firms and with the self employed engineers - clearly there are people who do not get the support that they need.' He adds that he is also concerned about the number of engineers with degrees that are working in the industry but are neither chartered nor associate members of the ICE.

However, Larcombe says that modern engineers are now expected to take much more responsibility for their own training. 'The emphasis in the profession has got to move away from a training culture to one of a learning culture. We must move away from being spoon fed towards doing something for yourself.'

But self motivation is fine if there is some perceived reward at the end. Certainly one reason for the comments made is that engineers speak to friends in other professions like accountancy or banking. They can see them being mentored through their professional training, attending intensive, well run training courses and being given study leave to prepare for exams. They see the rewards given for hard work and the pride their friends have in telling others what they do.

It is true that the ICE runs a well established local association network and has many Regional Liaison Officers to give valuable advice and support to graduates and technicians. But without the support and backing from employers this is often diluted.

Creating a profession of well trained, well motivated civil engineers must be the key to raising the profile of engineers within society. Feeling good about yourself is certainly the first step towards making others feel good about you. But it must also be the key to raising the business fortunes of the industry if employers are to be competitive and survive.

Civil engineers can bleat on as long as they like about the rights and wrongs of the new Engineering Council SARTOR rules and whether or not they will raise the standards of graduates entering the profession. The fact is that unless employers take on these graduates - good or not so good - and invest time, resources and money in developing their careers, engineering standards will not improve and the industry will become even less competitive.

A degree after all, proves simply that a graduate has a certain ability to learn. It does not make them an engineer, chartered or incorporated. For this they rely on their employers to help shape them.

Highlighted quotes are a sample of views expressed on the NCE questionnaire forms.

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