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You paid them a pittance and now they're gone. . .

Analysis - UK employers kept engineering salaries low during the 1990s so staff left. Today's skills shortage means the pigeons have come home to roost.

The poor pay that followed the recession in Britain during the early 1990s meant that half of those graduates qualifying as civil engineers in the latter part of the decade left the industry for better recompensed jobs in IT and nance.

A decade on and the effects of the missing generation ? which NCEI estimates totals between 8,000 and 10,000 in number ? are coming home to roost.

The UK construction industry is faced with an almost unprecedented workload but not enough qualied, experienced 28 to 35-year-old engineers with the project management track record to run the work.

Evidence for this is anecdotal but overwhelming when speaking to civils employers in consulting, contracting and client organisations.

'The market is overheating and there are too many employers chasing the same bodies, ' says Whitbybird partner Mark Whitby. 'The pressure is on for experienced people.' Salaries of ($150,000), with or without bonus, are reportedly being offered by some contractors to project managers in their early 30s, despite some not having particularly good experience. The inflated salaries are having a consequent effect on contract prices.

'It is inevitable that job prices will go up, ' Whitby says.

And looking further ahead, he believes that a lack of resources means construction will miss more delivery dates, there will be a rise in claims, construction in ation will spiral and jobs will be cancelled.

The boom could turn into a slump in the blink of an eye.

Britain's nfrastructure Forum chairman and Balfour Beatty Civil Engineering managing director Andrew McNaughton has sympathy for Whitby's view. 'I'd agree that this pool of people ? the 28 to 35-year-olds ? is a problem, ' he says.

'We are all chasing the same people. It reminds me of the late-1980s boom in London when you'd get people in on site one day and they'd pack it in to go to a competitor the next. There was a real frenzy of people moving around.

'Industry is training people who then find themselves very marketable. Competitors are going shing.' But the big salaries they are offering can destabilise a business he warns. 'As an organisation we would resist those numbers as they destabilise your existing people and your bids, and, to be honest, a lot of the people demanding that money are not that special.' McNaughton's advice is to make sure staff can see they have a long-term future with a business so they have to think career or contract before they jump ship.

People can be brought on much more quickly by using senior people as mentors. And firms could help by taking the mundane burden away from key people ? all that stuff that used to be done by support staff before accountants decided to push it out to the people in the front line to save on overheads.

For designers, there is a saving grace. Developments in computer software, particularly 3D models, mean that one person can manage about 20% more work.

'With 3D models that can do the design and the structural analysis you can produce much more with the same numbers, ' says Waterman managing director elect Nick Taylor.

'But it's vital you review the input and the output and you need experienced engineers for that.' On the contracting side, just bring people on quicker, McNaughton advocates.

Expecting people to spend years banging in pegs just because you had to yourself is rubbish, he says.

Firms are going overseas to hunt down staff ? not helped by the recent Home Ofce decision to take some engineering disciplines off the critical staff shortage list. Or they are looking for project managers from other disciplines.

The risk to the civil engineering profession is that younger engineers will get ghettoised into the technical area. 'They need to be trained in project management now or they will be destined to work under some other kind of project manager, ' says Scott Wilson chairman Geoff French.

'That's the challenge for the young civil engineering professional.' And their employers.

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