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The geotechnical sector is, according to the recruitment industry, 'a sellers' market' - so why are employers finding it increasingly hard to find what they are really looking for?

With the geotechnical industry in overdrive and the much talked of skills shortage biting hard, the problem of finding staff is more acute than ever.

Most employers say there is not necessarily a shortage of graduates; the problem is finding good ones, especially those with geotechnical experience.

As Martyn Singleton, business development director with Keller Ground Engineering puts it, 'good graduates are as rare as free beer' Geoff Card of consultant Card Geotechnics believes good civil engineering graduates 'with a geotechnical bent' are impossible to find, while Pete Arnold from consultant Yeandle Geotechnical says: 'It seems very few undergraduates are now taught geotechnical skills and as a small company we have difficulty attracting those graduates.'

In contrast Tim Chapman, associate director at consultant Arup, believes his company's high profile and reputation means 'we probably don't notice the shortage as much as other companies' Even so, he says: 'Of the general applicants we see, very few have a civil engineering degree plus a good geotechnical MSc, so I am sure there is a general shortage across the industry.'

Steve Branch, managing director of Geotechnical & Environmental Associates comments: 'Until now we have very rarely taken on a graduate without a second degree. For what we are looking for, most undergraduate courses are too general, but I think that recruiting at graduate level is becoming unavoidable.

'We wouldn't hesitate in taking on a geology or civil engineering graduate, interested in a career in geotechnics, who we could sponsor through a suitable second degree.'

John Talbot of Bettridge Turner & Partners thinks many undergraduate courses do not provide students with basic sound engineering principles and contain too much 'fluffy stuff ' He feels the output from postgraduate courses is much better, but there are insufficient numbers coming through. 'Courses are now too expensive and too many good ones have closed down, ' he says.

Talbot believes all geotechnical engineers should have a second degree and says there are good arguments for part-time courses attended by those with a few years of experience.

Phil Parnell, geotechnical director at Weeks, also cites the lack of 'industry-friendly' day release postgraduate geotechnical courses as a problem.

Card is also disappointed with the quality of most graduates. 'It seems to me that the universities are not producing enough good engineering graduates. Like cattle, the yearly graduates are let loose into the market place - some find rich pasture, but most drift into other industries.'

However, Chapman believes there has been an improvement in the number of civil engineering graduates who stay within the industry, and more are 'reconciled' to developing a career in civil engineering or geotechnics.

Whether this is because the industry is becoming more attractive or because opportunities in other sectors are not as great as before is unclear.

For many the problem is not really about the lack of graduates, but their ability. According to Arnold, few appear to have basic report writing and numeracy skills.

Stan Mimms, marketing manager at Pennine, feels university leavers lack communications skills and 'do not have a grasp of reality in the sense that they have little appreciation that deadlines and commercialism are important.'

The increasing diversity of geotechnical work means employers are also on the lookout for environmental scientists. While there is a ready supply of these, Branch says it is 'very difficult to find environmental people with any idea about engineering' The point is made more bluntly by another senior industry consultant who says: 'There are too many born-again geologists who lack a sound engineering background.'

Arnold adds: 'We receive a lot of applications from non-technical, by which I mean non-engineering, degree students who have done say, pure geology followed by a semi-technical MSc.

But when graduates from environmental courses have not heard of CLEA you wonder what they have been taught.'

Another issue identified by Jim Beveridge, Mott MacDonald director of geotechnics, is that the MEng qualification is generally too broad for geotechnical engineering, which 'requires significant additional training' Richard Jardine, professor of geotechnical engineering at Imperial College, shares this view. He likens those civil engineers with BEng and MEng degrees to GPs, whereas those with an MSc, 'are the specialists to whom the general practitioners refer' As MEng degrees increase in popularity, there is an emerging problem that MEng students are reluctant to go back to university to gain a specialist MSc course, having already completed a four-year degree course.

The message is clear: despite the increasing size of the graduate pool, employers are becoming increasingly frustrated with the output from universities.

Card operates a system that may offer a solution. He says: 'Maybe I have a too high expectation, but as a company we have to accept that a graduate who joins us will need up to two years of further training before he or she is useful.

'It's getting to the point where the company is doing its own internal MScstyle course for graduates.'

This is a recipe, he says, 'that breeds success' and 'most of the graduates that come to us are in a senior management position within a few years of joining' 'One of the benefits of joining a small focused organisation is that we can offer a high degree of responsibility and challenge early in an engineer's career, ' Card says.'Above all we are able to meet their career aspirations.'

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