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UK swimming in pool of talent - young and old

Talent spotting

Judging from NCE 's postbag over the last few weeks, ageism and employment problems in the civil engineering profession run deep.

Across the UK, there is a pool of talent ready and waiting to be utilised, yet it is dismissed by some of the largest firms as too old, too inflexible or too expensive. Yet the passion for the profession expressed in many of the letters is a recurring theme.

So, while there are always very real business issues which force firms to lay off staff in tough times, it would seem bizarre that we are now struggling to find enough talent to resource the workload.

Not surprisingly, many correspondents have also highlighted the industry's long standing reputation for poor salaries as key to the whole employment problem.

Which leaves us an interesting dilemma. Companies in the profession seem unable or unwilling to pay young people decent money because they lack the necessary experience. And yet they are unable to pay experienced staff properly because this means they are too expensive.

The result, of course, is that the profession is increasingly becoming staffed by disgruntled mid-career engineers who, although overworked, dare not ask for more money or assistance from a junior engineer for fear of losing their own jobs.

Perhaps this squeeze on salaries and ingrained fear of redundancy will boost productivity. Sadly, the reality is that the longer this situation goes on, the harder it will be to reverse the current trend. It is a downward spiral.

The issue, for me, stems ultimately from current business theories which perpetuate the obsession by bosses to justify decisions to the accountants circling continuously like vultures above their careers.

Backside covering, it is often called.

The results are formulaic, dull businesses filled with uncreative, dull people. This is not the environment in which forward thinking businesses or professionals thrive.

Yet the solution is all around us and so easy to spot in the best, most successful companies - talent and support for talent.

If civil engineering firms were to simply back their staff and build on this talent, I believe they would quickly develop the kind of virtuous circles seen at the heart of the most successful businesses around the world.

Developing people's careers, young and old, and giving the freedom to really express and grow their skills maintains interest, retains enthusiasm and removes many of the traditional barriers to what is possible. And this extends to rewarding properly for achievement.

While it is true that businesses have had to reposition to meet the changing needs of the market, effective change management does not mean abandoning key talents.

For the civil engineering professional, this remains the ability to solve problems and help to make people's lives better.

Overlooking or under-investing in the development of staff has proved the downfall of many good firms. There is still time for the profession to reverse out of the decline - only vision is required.

Antony Oliver is editor of New Civil Engineer.

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