Asked if there is currently a problem with a skills gap, the reaction of the Institution of Civil Engineers’ Penny Marshall is: “There is going to be a problem.’’ She explains that, as the economic recovery gathers pace and new infrastructure programmes - such as HS2 or another Crossrail or airport expansion - are rolled out, the UK will need “a significant number’’ of new civil engineers.
Marshall also points out that civil engineering is a global industry and that people sitting behind desks in Newcastle are designing infrastructure for the World Cup in Qatar or railways in India. “Part of the problem we have at the moment is that there is a bit of a hole in the 14-year-old to 19-year-old demographic with a big drop in the birth rate between 14 and 19 years ago and we are in competition with lots of other industries that are also seeing growth for a limited pool of young people,’’ she says.
A further demographic time bomb lies in the fact that nearly a third of the profession is staffed by baby boomers who are due to retire in the next five to ten years. “So, we have lots of people falling out at the top and not many coming in at the bottom,’’ she adds. “We are appropriately resourced at the moment but that’s not going to be the case for much longer.
“If we don’t start training people now we are not going to have people skilled and ready to deliver all of these projects in the UK and across the world. The whole of the infrastructure programme globally requires a step change in the way that we recruit engineers.’’
Marshall argues that the country must improve its record in offering apprenticeships and return to the situation of 10 to 20 years ago where companies recruited apprentices every September as a matter of course.
“This is partly a result of the recession,’’ she says. “One of the first things businesses cut are apprenticeships - `we don’t need more people, we can’t afford to train people’. We need to turn that mentality round and say what we need now is new blood and lots of new people and if we don’t train them now there isn’t going to be anybody here in 10 years.’’
She also points out that just 19% of professional engineers coming through are women, whereas 52% of the population are women. “We are missing out on a huge proportion of the talent and we have to fish in the whole of the talent pool,’’ she says.
ICE is working hard to do that. For example, on Women in Engineering Day, Marshall was working with eight schools in the region. “But the scale of what we need to do is huge to get the message across to every young woman in every school in the North East,’’ she says.
ICE’s own research shows that the most influential people in young women’s career decisions are their mothers, so the profession needs to find ways of convincing mothers of some of the great career opportunities for women in civil engineering.
ICE has also developed a Civil Engineering Badge for the Brownies as part of its engagement with the younger age groups. “If you go into primary schools, kids will tell you that they like maths and science and if you go to a crèche the girls will be playing with the Lego and the building bricks but something goes wrong further along the line and what we want to do is provide an offer that interests and enthuses everybody.’’
Marshall bemoans a decline in careers education which means that civil engineering is not sold as a career option to young people.
ICE also works with Stemnet, the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Network and sends ambassadors into schools. Last year ICE engaged with 5,000 young people in the North East in the sense of a civil engineer having a conversation with a young person about the profession.
“We think that’s the best way to do it, we want to get our young engineers talking to young people in schools,’’ says Marshall. “We also work with FE colleges and universities, it’s about capturing people at all stages of their education.’’
She emphasises that young people can enter the profession at many levels: they can leave school at 16 and get an apprenticeship, which doesn’t preclude them from becoming a chartered engineer, of the same status as someone who went to university – but without a £30,000 debt.
“We are offering routes through to chartered engineer status in all kinds of different ways. You don’t have to do A-Levels and go to university to get to the top of the pile,’’ she says. “University is the right route for some people but it’s not the only route.
“You can start earning at 16, you can go and do Level 3 qualification at college and go on and do an HNC and you can do these things part time and earn and learn at the same time. A lot of companies – particularly contractors – prefer that because they have young people who become useful very quickly.
“Engineering is a great career and the problem is that too many people don’t know who we are and what we do and that’s what we’ve got to redress.’’