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Water shortages

Specialist water engineers are becoming harder to find, leaving the sector facing important recruitment decisions to safeguard its future.

Water recruitment is going through a period of change. The number of individuals joining the industry has grown tremendously over recent years, while the number of potential recruits with specific engineering skills is on the decline. The upshot is increased demand for qualified personnel and a need for employers to review recruitment policy.

There is a huge range of engineering projects under way at the present time which require additional staff. Head of human resources at consultant Carl Bro, Jeannie Edwards says: 'We are employing many clean and dirty water engineers in several aspects of the water sector, most predominately in upgrading water networks linking reservoirs with homes and industry. We are also employing river engineers with river modelling and flood warning experience, but there seem to be few such engineers available.'

The number of engineers and operatives that have found work through recruitment consultant Beresford BlakeThomas has risen strongly over the last few years. Senior Consultant Astrid Warmington says: 'Since the onset of privatisation and the upturn in capital investment during the middle part of the decade, we have observed a tremendous rise in the number of job vacancies. Only 226 of our 2,000 water industry clients were actively recruiting in 1995 compared with 1,800 in 1997.'

Consultant Babcock Water Engineering has seen a busy period of recruitment activity recently, but the overall quality of respondents has been disappointing. 'We receive a lot of applications for positions but we are struggling to find structural engineers with experience in a water-related environment,' says personnel officer Caroline Norris.

Water industry positions are also increasingly appearing on the Emap Construct's Careers in Construction Internet site, which includes the recruitment adverts from NCE and its sister magazines. There have been 36 water industry jobs advertised on the site in the last five weeks, well up from July when there were only 15 in the sector. On average, more than 530 jobs seekers a day visited the site last month, about 17% of them with water experience.

Severn Trent Water's senior human resources manager Gail Manley says many vacancies can be filled by individuals with general engineering qualities, but it is hard to find and hold on to these people. 'We are currently seeing a difficulty in employing instrument technicians and there is concern that people with these skills will be in short supply as the millennium approaches.'

The search for ideal recruits is being widened in the meantime to identify high calibre people from other areas to meet the demand. Professionals with many years of experience in other engineering sectors are increasingly being called upon.

Such a trend can also bring benefits to the sector. 'Because we are a constantly changing company we have recognised the need to recruit people with different skills. We look for people with a communication focus from other areas of business who can look at the ways we do things and suggest new ideas,' says Manley.

Individuals are more keen to change direction, says Warmington. 'So much more versatility is being shown by engineers who change career direction by working in project management or marketing. There are so many different paths which they can pursue.'

A more long term view of recruitment to the water sector is to target school and college leavers, training them for specific technical roles within engineering, says Manley. Many are being encouraged into water engineering with the promise of continued training while working. Southern Trent Water has been actively recruiting individuals to its asset management business over the last few years, but a lack of available technicians has led it to introduce a similar drive across the whole of its work.

'We are developing individuals by introducing a Modern Apprenticeship scheme leading to NVQ qualifications,' says Manley. 'We hope that the success of the scheme seen in asset management will provide the skilled technical staff we will need for future projects.'

An employer's ability to keep new recruits at a firm is more important than ever in the light of recent skills shortages. Graduates recruited by Babcock Water Engineering are encouraged to progress through the company. Norris says students with proven experience in their chosen field stand a better chance of recruitment and career progression in the water sector. 'A candidate who has taken a year out of studies to work in the industry or has found a part time work experience placement is at an advantage. It shows an employer that they posses a degree of commitment to their chosen career,' she says.

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