Antipodean graduates venturing to the UK used to be stuck with pulling pints. Now, relaxed visa rules designed to alleviate skills shortages mean they are being welcomed with open arms by the construction professions.
until last September, most young Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans working in the UK were temporary bar staff, waiters, labourers or secretaries. That was before the growth of the white-collar skills shortages, and before the government started wondering how it was going to find enough staff to keep the NHS and the UK secondary school system going. So last autumn it decided to relax its rules on work permits and visas – with the result that the next Aussie you bump into is likely to be a civil engineer, quantity surveyor or architect.

The new regulations make it easier for all non-European Union nationals to get a job in the UK. However, those from countries with similar legal structures to Britain and strong cultural links, such as Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, find themselves especially in demand. Some firms, including Balfour Beatty's rail division, have found rich pickings in India as well.

And there's no shortage of applicants. Since the rules were relaxed, overseas graduates have bombarded UK firms and agencies with CVs. Once they have a round of interviews set up, they will fly over on a job-hunting trip – although increasingly interviews are being held in their home countries by locals acting for British-based firms and agencies.

Antipodean graduates in particular can expect to walk into a white-collar job only weeks after applying for a work permit. Tim Cook, director at Hays Montrose, the UK's largest construction recruitment agency, is impressed by their attitude. "They are bright, enthusiastic, hard-working and good – all the hallmarks of a person who can get themselves halfway around the world." South Africans are also at a premium, because the political climate back home makes them more inclined to take on permanent positions, unlike Australians and New Zealanders who tend to regard working in the UK as a means of paying for a long holiday. According to Barbara Morgan, membership and registration manager at the South African Association of Civil Engineering, well over half the country's civil engineering graduates go to work abroad. Cook's experiences seem to back this up. "South Africans are desperate to leave the country. We've been there actively recruiting on behalf of clients at least four times this year," he says.

"All the candidates we bring over are snapped up," he continues. "In London, the young graduates on their working-holiday visas are especially popular as the market is so contract-driven at the moment. In Dublin alone, where the situation is even worse, over the past year we have placed 120 architects, 35 civil engineers and 35 building engineers from South Africa in permanent positions." Peter Moore, director of specialist surveying recruitment agency Macdonald & Co, backs up these reports: "One qualified South African quantity surveying project manager had three job interviews for permanent positions lined up within 24 hours of sending out his CV." Once a job has been offered, the employer usually handles the visa application on behalf of the recruit (see Getting a visa, page 56).

Before the regulations were relaxed, two years' relevant postgraduate work experience was needed to qualify for a two-year working holiday permit for anyone under 26, let alone for an extended-stay visa. The dropping of this requirement has created a major incentive for foreigners to come and work in the UK.

In addition, the rate at which applications are processed has been speeded up. The Department for Education and Employment estimates that 70% of all submissions are now returned within a week and 90% within a month.

Other changes that have opened up the market include an increase in the maximum limit for a permit from four years to five, a new fast-track pilot scheme for multinational employers to issue their own permits for staff transferring from abroad and granting permission for foreign students at British universities to stay on in the UK for a job without having to go home first and then apply.

These changes have benefited the structural and civil engineering sectors in particular – they have suffered a serious skills shortage in recent years. Hays Montrose estimates that at least 19% of the contract engineers on its books and 30% of its CAD technicians in central London are from New Zealand, South Africa or Australia.

Although this may not be ideal in the long term, it is one of the few immediate ways of alleviating a desperate situation. The latest Association of Consulting Engineers' survey claims that 94% of engineering companies have problems recruiting experienced staff – especially structural engineers – and that 90% are finding it difficult to get good, qualified graduates, which is unsurprising given that the pool of candidates has halved since 1994.

WSP and Markham Engineering are two of a growing number of engineers recruiting from overseas. WSP is looking at increasing the number of overseas staff it employs. Kath Knight, human resources director, says: "We didn't recruit more than 20 or 30 people from abroad last year. However, with all the changes in the work permits, we are considering South Africa as a market. But for all our 22 international offices, we tend to recruit locally anyway." Contractors are also getting in on the act. George Law, personnel manager at Balfour Beatty's rail division, says he has taken on five Australian, two South African and 17 Indian civil and structural engineers, as well as 24 skilled German overhead linesmen, most of them hired to help with the modernisation of the West Coast Main Line between London Euston and Glasgow.

"The overall project requires another three years' construction work, and foreign labour is a short-term solution for the next six to 12 months while we train up other staff," says Law.

"We recruited in a variety of ways. Through contacts and agencies in South Africa and India; in Germany we already had the staff as we had taken over the Daimler Benz's Berlin-based subsidiary Adtranz, which builds carriages and cables." Balfour Beatty's major projects division is also recruiting heavily from abroad. Fourteen South African civil engineers have already started work on the Birmingham north relief road and the Channel Tunnel Rail Link.

Some companies, however, prefer to steer clear of using workers from halfway around the globe. Tony Ellender, divisional personnel and training manager at Balfour Beatty Construction, has no plans for recruiting in this way.

"We only use EU staff because in the past we have found work permits [for non-EU staff] difficult to get hold of. I've not seen anything that says the government will fast-track engineers. We will exhaust the options of attracting non-vocational graduates, such as business studies, before going overseas," he says.

Ellender believes the skills shortage needs to be resolved at grass-roots level. "We are also looking at training five to 10 A level school leavers to do a part-time degree over five years, as well as sponsoring the full quantity surveying degree from this academic year at places like Nottingham Trent," he says.

At Balfour Beatty's sister company Heery International, managing director Graham Price also dismisses the notion of recruiting from outside Europe. "We want half our graduates to be European, as we are a European company with offices in Madrid, Germany and Paris, and we want to project a European image." But demand for antipodean graduates still far outstrips supply, as 27-year-old New Zealander Mark Sullivan has found. The civil engineer, now based in London with consulting engineer Price & Myers, says: "I had four interviews for engineering positions on one day and two days later, I started my job. And I know four other guys from my class working here as civil engineers.

"With an engineering degree, you are always in demand and can go anywhere you like."

How to snap up your overseas professional

  • Recruitment agencies can help you find staff from abroad. Hays Montrose (020-7931 8978) has all types of industry professional on its books, especially architects, civil and structural engineers, quantity surveyors and CAD technicians. Macdonald & Co (020-7629 7220) specialises in chartered and quantity surveyors.
  • Alternatively, you could target overseas graduates yourself. Skanska is one of the companies adopting an active approach to recruitment. At the end of this month, the firm is sending representatives out to South Africa to find potential employees. It is considering approaching universities directly as well as advertising in the local press.
  • Useful contacts
    South Africa
    South African Association of Civil Engineers: +27-1180 55947 Association of South African Quantity Surveyors: +27-1131 54140 South African Institute of Architects: +27-1188 69308 Australia
    Institution of Engineers Australia: +61-2627 31488 Royal Australian Institute of Architects: +61-2627 31548 New Zealand
    The Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand: +64-4473 2324 New Zealand Institute of Architects: +64-9623 6080 RICS Australasia covers Australia and New Zealand, accrediting courses in both countries: +61-2929 32895
  • How to get a visa

    Visas can be obtained through agencies such as Global Visas (020-7317 9428), which operates on a no-visa, no-fee basis in getting work permits and visas for foreign nationals. It charges about £800 for the process, which usually takes eight weeks from application to acceptance. Applications for work permits can be found on the Home Office web site at These must be filled in by applicants and the company offering the position then sends them to Overseas Labour Services in Sheffield (0114-259 4161), along with proof that it has tried to recruit UK nationals first. This can take eight weeks to process. If accepted, the application is sent for approval to the Home Office, which determines how long the work permit can be granted for – five years is the longest. In the case of newly qualified overseas graduates, the UK firm recruiting them must prove that it is training them and putting them forward for institute membership.