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Vintage performance

Your career Age and experience

If you're young and beautiful, then go away: only old engineers need apply.

That is the approach of one group of 'oldie' engineers who, tired of rejections, have taken matters into their own hands, as Diarmaid Fleming reports.

Life begins at 40, but for some engineers, finding a job if you are out of work and over the big four-zero can be more difficult than solving the most complex of technical problems.

Recent letters to NCE from middle-aged engineers looking for work have repeated the same story; valuable professional skills built up over decades of experience do not necessarily translate into employment. This is despite the rail and construction industries, and the civil engineering profession generally, crying out for new recruits.

Ageism in engineering seems a still more bizarre concept when the lack of recruits entering the industry is considered, with around 50% fewer graduates entering the profession than in 1995. Even if more were coming on board, no amount of graduates could replace the judgment, wisdom and expertise honed by experience. The present scenario, where experience is haemorrhaging at one end of the professional spectrum with no life-blood to replace it at the other, would seem an unsustainable one.

So what do you do if you are in your forties, fifties or sixties, with years of engineering experience, and you want to keep working? Some might be excused for reaching for the pipe and slippers after countless rejections, but one group of engineers, all in their 'more mature' years, have taken a dramatically different approach.

The result could serve as an encouraging model for other engineers in a similar situation.

Ashford Engineering Consultants (AEC) was born out of social contact between engineers living near Ashford in Kent, some of whom were working for themselves, with others out of work. Founder member Andy Sheerman-Chase explains that a number of senior engineers were made redundant by a local consultant, prompting some lateral thinking about how to get back to work.

'I have been running my own consultancy company for 18 years, but sometimes it can be a bit isolated. Then a local consultant laid off quite a lot of people, many of whom were very experienced. The idea came up of forming an umbrella organisation, where we could pool our skills to win work, ' says Sheerman-Chase.

Another local engineer involved said that getting work in the UK for older engineers was very difficult, whereas experience seemed to count overseas. 'Shortly before the enforced end of my full time employment, I was offered a four year overseas appointment as a contracts engineer, ' says Peter Heath. 'After circulating my cv I received three offers and believe I would have continuous work for several years, but my domestic situation means that overseas work is not suitable. It shows that experience is valued overseas, but the UK industry seems to be very different.'

Talks, some carried out in the pub, gave birth to the idea of setting up a collective of experienced engineers, offering a range of skills. AEC now has almost 30 engineers as members, and unlike at some firms where age and experience seems almost a disqualification for an interview, you will not get in the AEC door unless you have at least 20 years' engineering under your belt. Membership is free, but new members must be proposed by an existing member and accepted at a group meeting.

'Our members are all quite senior people, and AEC is a way of bringing them together to create much bigger resources for winning work, ' explains Sheerman-Chase.

'The internet is central to how we do business - it's older engineers using new technology.

We are really a virtual company, with no head office or base as such, so that keeps our costs down, ' he adds. 'We meet every three weeks in my office but if everyone turned up we'd have to get a new venue. At first, we began meeting in the Woolpack Inn, but it became difficult to get any work done, ' he jokes.

The website, www. ashfordengineeringconsultants. com, contains biographical details of AEC's engineers, and clients can approach the engineer whose skills most closely fit their needs.

'Some have contacted us thinking we are an employment agency and can supply engineers, but we are not that.

Instead we offer very skilled and experienced people for short periods of time or for specific projects, ' says Sheerman-Chase.

Experience covers a wide range of civil, structural, mechanical and electrical engineering expertise, ranging from complex geotechnical studies and tunnelling to claims advice and contract administration.

Although only up and running a few months, AEC has been involved in work including management of geotechnical investigations for a large consultant, expert witness reporting, advice on tunnelling work for a project in Romania and a hydropower development in Africa.

Winning work is primarily achieved by using the group's own contacts, and the internet.

'We hope to win work through contacts, which is really our big resource. And the internet provides immense possibilities - we are using it to its full potential, ' he says.

Overseas work such as advising on designs and checking drawings can now be done by email, whereas in the past, visits and posting documents would have been required, costing much more time and money.

He says that there is little overlap in the skills of the current membership, meaning that there should be no problems in sharing out work which could be done by a number of the members, and the specialist nature of the work won so far has borne out that belief. Members will be expected to put back 10% of fees earned into the AEC pot to help boost the co-operative.

Interestingly, far from showing any bitterness about the way some older engineers are treated in the employment market, Sheerman-Chase is rather sanguine.

'Because the market is so competitive for consultants, many cannot keep on experienced staff who are more highly paid. People are losing their jobs, but we are tapping into that. We are acting as an umbrella organisation for those with experience who want to work, and while some of us have our own busy practices, for others, it can be much more difficult. This is a way forward, ' he says.

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