The doom defiers

Despite the dire economic outlook not all companies are pulling down the shutters on new employees and, as Julia Pierce discovers, some are still expanding.

In a rare display of unity, economists, politicians and observers of the engineering sector agree — 2009 is going to be a challenge.

With availability of finance for business expansion at extremely low levels and the economy contracting, the market for engineering professionals is, unsurprisingly, taking its share of punishment.

Despite this, some companies are still looking for employees and while the recruitment market may have slowed, it has not ground to a halt.

HYDRO Engine Support KG is one firm that is bucking the trend for freezing recruitment or shedding staff in preparation for survival in 2009’s harsher economic climate.

‘We are looking for line engineers with aerospace experience to work on a large contract for Rolls-Royce in Derby,’ said Avtar Bratch, technical support manager. ‘Although a number of companies may be downsizing at present, this division of our company only started life in 2007 so it is just maturing and is therefore still growing.’

He added: ‘The work involves a new engine and so we have to design and develop the tooling for this over the coming 12 months, yet all our existing engineers are busy working with our traditional products. This has meant we are now taking on new staff in order to work on this new project.’

Although the exact number of recruits required is not certain, the company is looking to hire a double-figure team.

While admitting that the company would not be immune to the effects of a recession, Bratch noted that Hydro had a good track record for maintaining employment levels in previous downturns.

‘The number of people needed will depend slightly on the economic slowdown and how this affects the industry,’ he said. ‘We are seeing some effects of the squeeze but in no way as much as some other companies have.

‘Hydro has been running since the 1960s and in that time we have never made anyone redundant, even in the difficult period following 9/11. It is a family-run business and is still growing, with around 50 plus people being taken on globally in the past year.

‘Our initial projections suggest that we will be seeking 10 or more people for the Rolls-Royce work, as a vast amount of new tools must be designed and supported. We are also looking at strategies such as how to serve our global customers locally while expanding our local regional offices around the globe. Our tooling work for Rolls-Royce is global, meaning that we need offices in places such as Dubai. We also have a China office and a US office, as well as UK bases in Bracknell, Berkshire and Derby.’

Elsewhere, Guidance is a market-leader in sophisticated sensors and monitoring control systems, providing a range of specialist value-added products and services used globally in the security, factory automation and marine industries.

It has enjoyed considerable growth over the past five years and received a Queen’s Award for Export in 2006. In line with its growth strategy, which is continuing in spite of the recession, it plans to recruit a product manager to support product development and manufacture for UK and overseas markets.

Most of the company’s technical staff are from an engineering background allied to security, marine, transport, or measurement technology, and are of graduate level.

Guidance said strong interpersonal and communication skills and the ability to develop effective relationships with customers, clients and internal departments are the norm, meaning potential recruits must demonstrate these qualities.

The expertise and international reputation of UK engineering has also attracted the attention of overseas recruiters. The west Canadian province of Alberta is mounting a recruitment drive aimed at attracting engineering talent to the area.

Much of the work is focused on the oil industry, as the region holds significant petroleum reserves trapped within oil-sand deposits. While such fuel is harder to extract and process than conventional reserves, the development of new technologies has recently made it more attractive for exploitation.

According to those from the province, Alberta is suffering less than many other locations from the global downturn.

‘There is a lot of project work going on, and a lot of companies in Alberta — especially oil companies — are looking for international staff,’ said Murray Sigler, managing director of the Alberta UK office at the High Commission of Canada.

‘The economy has turned around in the last two months or so and this has been felt in Alberta.

‘There is not as much work around as there was perhaps six months ago and the fall in oil prices has meant that some demand for engineers will now stay on hold as a lot of work has been driven by oil sands work and activity around it.

‘However, Alberta is still forecast to experience economic growth next year and is leading Canada in this. Although companies may be taking a little time to re-examine such projects, they still need people.’

Sigler added: ‘Technological development is still going strong and fundamentals such as a rising world demand for energy still exist. Many areas are also looking to start infrastructure projects to stimulate the economy, funded by the provincial and national governments. For instance, the Alberta government has set up a C$2bn (£1.5bn) fund to develop carbon capture and storage technologies. Thirty projects are being considered. Also, emigration takes time, so people who are interested in working there should be looking to start their move now.’

Companies are seeking a range of skills. ‘Oil and gas experience is particularly sought after,’ said Sigler. ‘However, there may also be large forthcoming projects that will demand other expertise, such as a possible high-speed rail link between Calgary and Edmonton. We don’t have experience of building high-speed rail services in Canada, so we will have to look abroad to fill positions here also.’

According to Sigler, Canada’s working culture is closer to that of the UK than the US. The quality of life there is excellent, with plenty of open space, good schools, a highly ranked post-secondary education system and a good public health service.

‘The opportunity for professional development is good,’ he added. ‘A number of large corporations have their headquarters in Alberta, while the University of Alberta is the top- ranked institution in Canada when it comes to engineering. A lot of research takes place there.

‘Taxation levels and the cost of living are also good. There is an entrepreneurial spirit and government is less regulatory than in many places.’

Although the coming year will not be easy, a good number of engineering firms, unlike those within many industries, are still looking for staff and opportunities exist — even if candidates have to travel to take advantage of them.