Building a future: career prospects in civil engineering

With more than £500 billion of investment in the UK construction industry, and several major projects underway, there has never been a better time to build a career in infrastructure. Evelyn Adams reports

The UK’s construction industry is ramping up activity in 2017. Last month, the government announced more than £500 billion worth of infrastructure investment - money that will benefit everything from the country’s built environment to its communications networks.

This follows an announcement the £23 billion National Productivity Investment Fund which includes infrastructure investments of over £2.6 billion to improve transport networks. The government is also planning a multi-million-pound package on the future of broadband, and £7.2 billion to support the construction of new homes. In total, the investment is expected to create demand for more than 250,000 construction by 2020.

The funding has been described by the government as ‘the largest and most comprehensive ever’ creating a golden era in UK infrastructure. Chief secretary to the Treasury, David Gauke, claims: ‘This record infrastructure pipeline is set to make a real difference to people’s lives from quicker and easier journeys, to better broadband access, and building more homes for people who need them in high demand areas.’

There remains, however, a major challenge to building these homes, roads and runways. Around 20 per cent of civil engineers are set to retire in the next 15 years, and the amount of fresh blood entering the industry is not enough to meet the increasing levels of demand, or even fill the current skills gap. From the London’s ‘super sewer’ to the Hinkley Point C, engineers with the right talent are urgently needed to forge ahead with the UK’s infrastructure plans.

This means that companies are now widening their net to outside the traditional talent pool. A recent report by the Institution of Civil Engineers and construction firm, Costain, has called for a ‘recruitment revolution’ in civil engineering. It sets a new group of engineers need to be attracted to the industry, such as looking for talent from ex-military personnel and data scientists.

Te Thames Tideway tunnel - of which the Lee Tunnel, bored by this machine, is a part - will need large numbers of engineers
Te Thames Tideway tunnel - of which the Lee Tunnel, bored by this machine, is a part - will need large numbers of engineers

One of the projects that is set to require a huge number of engineers is the Thames Tideway Tunnel. This is a six-year, £4.2 billion infrastructure scheme that aims to prevent sewage overflowing from London’s Victorian system into the River Thames. At its peak it is expected that there will be around 4,250 direct construction workers and a further 5,100 indirect jobs created by the London project. Tunneling will begin this year and the project is expected to be complete in 2023.

Scott Young, head of skills and employment, Tideway admits that compared other engineering industries, sewage can be hard to ‘sell’. But the engineering opportunities offered by the project are unparalleled. A huge variety of skills are required. In particular, the project is looking for talent construction engineers and tunneling specialists. Working on such a large-scale project that will make a lasting mark on London’s infrastructure will be a rewarding and challenging career path, allowing engineers to develop transferable skills.

While the engineering jobs at the Tideway are focused in London, work is underway at Hinkley Point C in Somerset. It will be the biggest construction site in Europe, providing 25,000 construction jobs. When it is complete, the nuclear power station will employ 900 people and provide enough power for six million homes, and supplying seven per cent of the UK's electricity needs over 60 years.

Hinkley C will generate an estimated 25,000 jobs
Hinkley C will generate an estimated 25,000 jobs

‘A nuclear power station is a great opportunity for the UK to re-invigorate our nuclear engineering workforce,’ said Dr Ben Britton, a Royal Academy of Engineering research fellow and director of MSc in Advanced Nuclear Engineering at Imperial College London. UK graduates, both in the supply chain, operation and management of our nuclear fleet. These jobs require highly skilled individuals with a diverse range of expertise, combined with a holistic understanding of engineering in a nuclear context.’

Meanwhile High Speed 2 (HS2), the proposed new high speed railway connecting London with the West Midlands and the north of England, is expected to create 25,000 construction jobs. The project demands higher-level skills compared with other rail schemes. Around half of the workforce will need skills at level 3 (A-level equivalent), yet 80 per cent of the current UK construction workforce only train to level 2.

To bridge this gap, later this year, the National College for High Speed Rail will be opening with campuses in Doncaster and Birmingham. These will be the most advanced institutions of their kind in the UK – providing industry-led training for 1,265 school-leavers and career-changers and established professionals.

Beth West, Commercial Director for HS2 said: ‘HS2 provides the opportunity to drive productivity and growth and increase the UK’s international competitiveness in high-tech engineering and construction. It demands new higher-level technical skills for jobs not yet in existence in the UK.’ The college provides the opportunity to develop these skills, including new ones such as digital planning, before putting them into practice on HS2.

Other mega-projects such as the Trans-Pennine road tunnel and Heathrow Terminal 3 mean that there has never been a better time to pursue an engineering career in the construction industry. ‘With continued government investment, there are plenty of opportunities for skilled engineers to work in infrastructure,’ said Stuart Minchin, divisional manager at engineering recruitment specialist Matchtech

‘At a junior level, graduates and apprentices wanting to build a career within civil engineering should first consider which sector they are most interested in working in and then reach out to the consultancies hiring within that sector. For more senior and experienced engineers looking to move into a different infrastructure sector, working with a recruitment consultant can help facilitate your move as some consultancies are more hesitant than others about hiring engineers from other sectors. You can explain what experience you want to gain, where your strengths lie and the consultant can then help promote you to consultancies within your preferred sector.

‘The infrastructure sector drives the economy so to encourage further growth, employers need to consider all options to find and secure the best talent to encourage further economic growth.’