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Where is the work in 2013?

After three years of falling staff numbers, major consultants are now recruiting again, as Margo Cole reports.

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Crossrail: Getting into full swing

Amid all the doom and gloom of the current economic climate, it would be easy to overlook the fact that, slowly but surely, many of the industry’s leading players have increased their recruitment over the last year or so, and some of the top firms in the consultancy sector are now reporting that their staff numbers are back to prerecession levels.

Major domestic infrastructure projects like High Speed 2 (HS2) and Crossrail, coupled with huge investment in the world’s boom economies - like the Middle East - are fuelling a recruitment frenzy among UK consultants.

Spotting this improvement in the employment market is most obvious at the graduate level, where this year’s intake is significantly up on last year, and most firms plan to take on even more staff in 2013. It is a far cry from just three years ago, when NCE reported that graduate recruitment had fallen by over 40% across the UK’s top firms (NCE 20 August 2009).

Then, employers said that they would only recruit graduates if they had specific roles for them, despite fears that this could lead to a skills shortage further down the line. At the time, the ICE said it was “very concerned” about falling graduate vacancies and urged employers to adopt innovative approaches to training programmes.

“It is vital we learn the lessons of past recessions and do not create a major shortage of young trained engineers in a few years’ time,” ICE director of membership David Lloyd- Roach said at the time.

Aecom transportation director Paul McCormick agrees. “In the recession of the 1980s companies stopped all their graduate recruitment, and it had a massive impact in the 1990s when there weren’t enough senior engineers,” he says. “It also pushes salaries higher, but clients only pay the same amount, so it pulls down margins.”

Mc Cormick is keen that the same mistake is not made this time around so, while companies’ immediate priority when they take on graduates may be to give a firm the capability to do basic design at a sensible cost, “these graduates are going to be your senior engineers in five years’ time, so it helps you prepare for the future”, says McCormick.

Aecom took on 175 new graduates this year across all disciplines, compared with just 25 in 2009. Other major civil engineering consultants to boost their graduate recruitment this year include Mott MacDonald, which almost doubled its graduate intake from 88 last year to 165 in 2012, and Atkins, where the number of new graduates went up from 140 in 2011 to over 250 this year.

“If they get the opportunity to work in Jeddah, they should put their hand up - it will definitely help their career”

Paul McCormick, Aecom

WSP has taken on 74 graduates this year, and Arup recruited 139 to work in its UK offices, 50 of whom came with a civil engineering degree. The new Arup graduates have gone into the firm’s buildings, infrastructure and consulting practices after being selected from a pool of 3,553 applicants.

“The demand for places on our graduate programme has been exceptional this year and this is an incredibly exciting time for both the graduates who are embarking on their careers with us and for our business itself,” says Arup EMEA chair Robert Care. “These individuals have a critical role to play in shaping our business and have an opportunity to develop a long and successful career representing the next generation of professionals.”

Interestingly, 32% of Arup’s 2012 intake is female, a figure well above the industry average of 8.7%. WSP’s intake this year is also 30% female.

Arup board director and diversity champion Alan Belfield says: “We view diversity as a part of our commitment to social sustainability, in keeping with our distinctive culture of fairness and respect, and this demonstrates our commitment to improving gender imbalance in the industry.”

Research by NCE in September found that half of the UK’s top 10 consultants increased their graduate intake this year, despite the background of a double dip recession and its impact on construction. “The market place is getting stronger,” says Mott MacDonald human resources director John Malley, adding that today’s consulting engineers are becoming “increasingly mobile”, and need to respond to where the work is.

Looking ahead, it seems clear that new starters - be they graduates or more experienced engineers - may need to be more flexible and willing to move both within the UK and around the world to take advantage of the opportunities available.

Most of the big consultants have reported examples of engineers who opted to take redundancy rather than be transferred to an office a few kilometres away when the recession hit, and they want their new employees to have a bit more of a “can do” attitude. So, although they may be recruited by a specific UK office, they shouldn’t assume that they will be spending five days a week working there.

“What we try to do is make people aware when they join us that we want them to be flexible and mobile,” says McCormick, who heads up Aecom’s highways and bridges team, where projects can range from term maintenance work in the UK, in joint venture with a contractor, to designing 10 lane, 100km long highways in the Middle East. “If they get the opportunity to work in Jeddah, they should put their hand up - it will definitely help their career,” he says.

“We are looking for strong incorporated or chartered engineers who’ve got a good handle on projects and a good work ethic, and we want them to be flexible. Clients expect people to be mobile.”

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Aecom plans to take on another 100 graduates next year purely for its highways and bridges businesses, as well as about another 100 experienced engineers throughout the transportation disciplines. Around 20 of the graduates are likely to come from Spain, where part of the Aecom empire includes a Madrid-based design centre.

Throughout the recession, recruitment in the traditional civils markets of highways and bridges has been at a very low level in the UK, with more jobs coming through the rail and energy sectors. That could be set to change, after the government’s recent announcement that road schemes worth £1.5bn will now go ahead (NCE 13 December 2012). The schemes, which include a major upgrade of the A1, were previously canned for being too expensive but were put back on the table in chancellor George Osborne’s Autumn Statement.

Although not all firms will benefit, it is a welcome boost for a sector that has been starved of work, and is likely to result in recruitment among the consultants and contractors that land the contracts. With a further £333M set aside for “urgent maintenance”, firms with term maintenance agreements with local authorities may also need to take on some new staff to cope.

The roads spending is part of a total of £5.5bn to be made available for infrastructure projects, which includes energy and telecommunications. Despite the lack of new cash for the rail industry, the government’s decision to back HS2 through the next phases of consultation and environmental assessment is also likely to boost recruitment at the firms involved with the project.

But it is the boom outside the UK that is likely to fuel next year’s projected increase in recruitment, and to take advantage of it, a flexible attitude may well be the best qualification on your CV.

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