Think big

As engineering projects become more complex and ambitious, consultants are busy recruiting specialists to help these prestigious schemes move ahead smoothly. Julia Pierce reports.


From road building to the provision of energy plant and supplies, the constantly growing scope of modern engineering projects means that consultants are increasingly in demand.

Such companies aim to provide complex and ambitious schemes with a one-stop shop containing a huge variety of knowledge, allowing such enterprises to move ahead smoothly.

Having a range of expertise on board means consultants can bid for work on some of the UK’s most prestigious schemes, while at the same time forging links abroad.

As well as being involved in a number of future projects both at home and overseas, Mott MacDonald has won contracts allowing it to create the infrastructure for the 2012 Olympics. ‘Our engineers are very proud of our involvement,’ said transportation unit resourcing manager James Armitage. ‘When we are recruiting in areas such as this, people are very keen to be included.’

Other well-known schemes in which the company has been involved include the building of the Stormwater Management and Road Tunnel (SMART) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. During the monsoon season, it easily converts from carrying traffic to a storm drain capable of taking water away from densely populated areas.

Mott MacDonald is also involved in, and is looking for, staff to create a large railway system to take raw materials from South Africa’s mines to the port of Durban — which is also to be upgraded by the firm as part of the scheme. ‘It is a huge project that will aid the world by assisting with the delivery of raw materials,’ said Armitage.

In the UK, the company is currently looking for engineers from a range of disciplines to work on infrastructure projects including rail, tunnel and transport modelling-related schemes. Some of this recruitment is for London’s Crossrail project, which will require mechanical, electrical, railway, tunnel, and geotechnical specialists.

The company is also seeking staff for the upgrade of Victoria Station. ‘If you name an engineer with 18 months’ experience then we will probably want them,’ explained Armitage, adding that UK engineers also have the option of gaining skills on international projects.

Environmental and engineering consultant Entec provides commercial and technically robust business solutions in areas such as water, waste, energy, contaminated land and planning. The company will be opening its 14th office in Cardiff early this year.

Alongside continued staff growth in existing offices across the country, this new one is to help Entec sustain its long-term organic growth strategy which has seen turnover grow from £30m in 2001 to £51m in the year ending March 2007.

Strong local workloads and future prospects have led to the decision to expand office capacity. Entec currently has a number of vacancies throughout the UK ranging from technicians and consultants through to principal consultants, associate and technical directors.

Managing director Simon Armes-Reardon said: ‘We are continuing to grow quickly and organically, and increasingly, being in the right place to recruit the best people is key to our success. The Cardiff office will bring Entec into reach for new people who share our vision of a company which delivers results now and in the long term, promising careers and not just jobs.’

Meanwhile, exceptional market conditions created by a mixture of high global demand and international tensions have allowed the energy sector to flourish.

ASTEC Services’ main markets are in the nuclear and oil and gas sectors. ‘Continuing high oil prices mean there is great demand for staff yet a shortfall of resources, especially in northern Scotland,’ said managing director Andy Thompson. ‘Apparently, the unemployment rate in Aberdeen is something like 0.7 per cent at the moment.’

Such pressure on both temporary and permanent recruitment means that retention of staff is a major concern for employers, as is the issue of encouraging skills transfer from other industries through knowledge transfer programmes.

Although the future of nuclear power is not yet fully assured, the recent announcement by British Energy (BE) of an agreement with the National Grid concerning increased capacity has led to much speculation that new stations may yet be built. Within this accord, BE declared that it had entered into transmission connection agreements with National Grid at four sites in the south of England, potentially providing grid access from 2016 onwards and comprising the capacity needed for any future nuclear development at these sites.

But in the meantime, even before any new-build is agreed, Thompson said that care and maintenance of existing nuclear plants is still giving rise to strong employment.

‘There is a particular shortage of staff at higher levels across the board,’ added ASTEC’s Thompson. He cited nuclear’s past unpopularity as having caused this situation, as few new graduates have come through the industry to replace those about to retire. Though skills between ASTEC’s core markets of the oil, gas and nuclear industries are reasonably transferable, high demand for staff from both is creating a difficult situation.

‘There are some pretty major challenges coming up,’ said Thompson. ‘The likes of ASTEC are trying to create a degree of flexibility in the workforce and move people between sectors that are slightly depressed to those that are doing better. However, all areas seem to be doing well at the moment.’

Though the buoyant demand for engineers should be good news, as is increasingly being stated, this is in fact creating a problem of lack of candidate supply — something that is compounded by a diminishing number of people entering the professions, as Mott MacDonald’s Armitage pointed out. ‘This year there was a 17 per cent drop in the number of civil engineers entering university,’ he explained.

Thompson also noted that although commercial pressures mean companies are seeking to reduce costs through such measures as limiting pay rises and sub-contractor fees, the scarcity of qualified professionals means skilled applicants are increasingly able to argue for higher pay.

As a result, like all employers seeking engineers, consultants are becoming increasingly creative in offering an all-round benefits package to prove themselves attractive to the best candidates. ‘To attract people from a diminishing pool we offer training and experience on both national and international projects,’ said Armitage. ‘If they would like to undertake a qualification such as provided by The Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) then we assist and support them.’

He claimed the company’s ownership structure also makes it an attractive place to work. ‘The major advantage is that it is privately owned, meaning that employees, rather than the City, have control over the decisions that are made,’ added Armitage. ‘Profits are returned to staff, meaning that we have a profit-related pay scheme with a yearly bonus. At the moment this stands at 11.6 per cent of salary but is due to increase shortly. If people work well then they can reap the rewards of their achievements.’

Meanwhile, in order to differentiate themselves from similar employers, Entec is providing staff with an individualised approach to their professional development. As part of this, each employee has a personal development plan outlining their goals and aims to continually extend their abilities. Jayne Reaston, head of operational services, said: ‘We are committed to investing in the development of people to maximise their motivation and ability to contribute to both their and the company’s success.’

Given their involvement in such a range of projects, working for a consultant could provide potential applicants with a stimulating and rewarding working environment, as well as the chance to work alongside other professionals with a wide range of skills and experience.

With the sector suffering the same staffing and skills pressures as specialist firms, this year there should be plenty of scope for interested parties to find a company that is both recruiting in their area and can meet their employment needs.