We need to prioritise investment in the next generation of engineering talent

The Covid-19 Pandemic has thrown up a multitude of challenges for the UK civil engineering sector. Many of the immediate challenges we face are significant and, at times, can almost appear overwhelming. However, it is vital that as an industry we don’t resort to short-termism. Making the wrong moves now can result in otherwise avoidable long term issues.

In particular, we need to prioritise investment in the next generation of engineering talent. A combination of the financial distress caused to businesses during the pandemic coupled with the very real practical difficulties of remote working have dealt a devasting blow to prospects of many new graduates. Unable to carry the cost or dedicate the resource to managing new graduates remotely, many employers have opted to postpone graduate recruitment in 2020.

Yet this turn of events isn’t new or unique to the Covid-19 Pandemic. As a recruiter working within the construction and engineering sector, I have seen this play out before following the 2008 global financial crash, and if you were to ask some of my slightly older, greyer colleagues, they’d tell you it’s a feature of any economic downturn.

In 2008 I was one year into my career at Contract Scotland. The preceding years had witnessed something of a boom in the Scottish construction industry buoyed by a major PFI spending spree. By that point, the UK economy had enjoyed unprecedented annual growth for over a decade. Having convinced ourselves that we’d solved the age-old boom/bust problem, the 2008 global crash was a literal shock to the system. The panic that ensued led to a bunker mentality within the industry. For totally understandable reasons, the idea of investing in fresh talent amidst that uncertainty seemed unwise and risky.

With a lack of opportunity at home, many graduates resorted to moving abroad or sourcing work in other sectors creating a ‘lost generation’ of construction and engineering talent, the effect of which only truly began to be felt several years down the line. That lost generation should have progressed to become Senior Engineers, perhaps becoming Chartered. They would now be highly proficient, productive Engineers, capable of working quickly and independently, not to mention providing valuable mentorship to new graduates. Indeed, the absence of this generation has meant limits on future graduate intakes, with many employers unable to provide the competent supervision required, creating a feedback loop and compounding the problem further.

For many of our clients, both contractors and engineering consultancies, the shortage of competent staff severely limit their ability to deliver projects within an already tight budget and programme requirements, which fundamentally affect the bottom line for many businesses.

In an industry with a long term, systemic skills shortage, we can ill-afford to set this cycle in motion again. As we move into 2021 and with the end of the pandemic hopefully in sight, it’s important we note the lessons of the past. The economic challenges we face are significant, and with that, the need to manage overheads carefully will be important. As such, there will be a considerable temptation to further delay investment in fresh talent. Whilst taking that option will help solve the challenges today, as we’ve seen before, it will create different challenges for tomorrow.

So whilst there have been immovable practical challenges preventing investment in graduates in 2020, the industry must move quickly to address the shortfall by investing in 2021 and beyond. Yes, the economic difficulties in the wake of Covid-19 will be complicated, but ultimately, the businesses that show faith and invest in fresh talent now will emerge strongest from these difficult times.

At Contract Scotland, we can provide bespoke solutions to aid employer’s graduate recruitment strategies. We can provide access to national job boards as well as taking out much of the leg work in assessing applications and vetting prospective candidates. If you feel we can be of assistance, I would be happy to discuss further – jamie.porter@contractscotland.co.uk.

Posted by Jamie Porter
14th December, 2020
Get in touch with Jamie Porter