Shipping forecast

Engineers will play a crucial role as the defence-dominated UK shipbuilding industry continues to recover post recession

Optimism is returning to shipbuilding. The sector took an enormaous worldwide hit during the recession, during which time the building of ships effectively stopped. But Civil shipbuilding has picked up again since then, and sea transport remains the most cost-effective way of moving goods.

But although ships of all kinds are designed in the UK, civil ships are in fact mainly built in Korea and south-east Asia. In the UK, shipbuilding activity is dominated by defence, where concern has been not so much the direct effect of the recession, but the government’s strategic defence and security review.

Complex: nuclear submarines require every engineering discipline
Complex: nuclear submarines require every engineering discipline

When it was published last year, the defence review reaffirmed the need for a strong navy, and the need for major projects the industry is working on notably the two Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, both of which are now under construction at shipyards around the country, employing about 10,000 people.

Last month, defence secretary Liam Fox gave the green light for the £3bn initial design phase for the successor to the current Trident submarines. As many as 15,000 jobs could be secured if the programme gets the final go-ahead in 2016.

The signs, according to analysts, are that the sector is holding up extremely well. Muir Macdonald, managing director of consulting engineer group BMT Defence Services, said: ’In the aircraft carrier, we are building the biggest warship we’ve built in the UK for decades, in seven shipyards around the country, with engineers based in all of them and the project’s nerve centre in Bristol.’

Engineers will continue to be crucial for years to come, as building is succeeded by testing and commissioning, and then in providing in-service support, a major role in itself requiring sizeable onshore teams.

Engineering skills: the UK can claim world a leadership in many areas of complex design
Engineering skills: the UK can claim world a leadership in many areas of complex design

Macdonald claims that replacing Trident submarines is a 40-year job, as the Ministry of Defence expects successor submarines to remain in service to the 2060s. He said: ’We say in our industry that a nuclear submarine is more complicated than a space shuttle. It will require practically every single engineering discipline in some shape or form.’

As such, companies urgently need to recruit good engineers at all levels, and have formed UK NEST UK Naval Engineering Science and Technology to address common issues, particularly the recruitment and professional development of engineers in the sector. Membership includes Babcock Marine, BAE Systems, BMT Defence Services, Qinetiq, Rolls-Royce and Thales.

One of the largest recruiters, BAE Systems Submarine Solutions, is looking to employ upwards of 120 professional engineers, as well as a number of project managers. As the industry lead for the Astute programme, BAE is responsible for delivering seven of these state-of-the-art submarines to the UK Royal Navy and is also engaged in the design of the next generation of nuclear deterrent submarines.

’The skills and expertise required to design these incredibly complex vessels are now needed to join the engineering and project management stages of the programme,’ said Michael Tennyson, communications manager for programmes and support at BAE. ’To design a submarine that must withstand the pressure of remaining deep below the ocean’s depths for months at a time, manufacture its own oxygen and keep its crew safe in one of the world’s most hostile environments is an unrivalled feat of engineering.’

The majority of the recruitment for BAE will be at its site in Barrow-in-Furness, on the edge of the Lake District. This site has a historic legacy in demonstrating impressive engineering skills, from constructing the UK’s first nuclear-powered submarine, HMS Dreadnought, to the current Astute class. There are also several satellite offices around the UK that BAE is recruiting for, and the company also has opportunities for overseas placements in the US.

Between them, the major players in UK NEST are recruiting 140 graduates this summer alone

Between them, the major players in UK NEST are recruiting 140 graduates this summer alone and are holding a careers day in Portsmouth on 14 June. BMT Defence Services is taking on eight graduates and two technical apprentices to add to its complement of 220. ’There may be a recession and there may be defence cuts but we’re still growing and are prepared to invest in the training of these people,’ said Macdonald.

For many, shipbuilding is still not seen as the most glamorous engineering sector and is associated with ’steelbashing’ although the term hardly does justice to the state-of-the-art techniques being used in putting together ’a 65,000-tonne jigsaw puzzle’, as the aircraft carrier has been described.

But in design offices around the country, some complex design and development is going on much of it in areas where the UK can claim world leadership. Warship propulsion systems are a case in point. BMT Defence Systems is working with Rolls-Royce and power conversion specialist Converteam in this area. Electric propulsion provides more flexibility and greater fuel efficiency. The underlying technology is similar to that used in rail rolling stock.

Investors in people: UK NEST aims to address recruitment concerns
Investors in people: UK NEST aims to address recruitment concerns

’Because of the environment in which we put these things, we have to go to another level of sophistication,’ said Macdonald. Systems have to be shock resistant, vibration resistant and electromagnetic pulse resistant. ’There’s a lot of exciting engineering going on there,’ he added. ’The sector does need heavy electrical engineers. It’s quite a rare skill. We go looking for the very best graduates.’

Considerable numbers of electronic control and systems engineers are also employed in areas ranging from propulsion to the weapons systems ’it doesn’t get much more sophisticated than that’, according to Macdonald.

At the moment, the industry offers long-term prospects for skills from microelectronics to steelwork, working on projects from aircraft carriers to small landing craft, and developing state-of-the-art technologies that will become export earners for the UK economy in the future.

Through UK NEST, the sector is collaborating to work with younger engineers, helping them develop into future leaders of multidisciplinary teams. ’We’re asking ourselves, “who’s going to be the chief engineer of the aircraft carrier in 10 years’ time?”’ said Macdonald. ’If we can’t spot him or her now, what are we collectively doing to make sure there’s a pool of talent ready?’