Experienced international project managers, site engineers and managers are increasingly hard to find. And, although this situation is being addressed at various levels by academia, industry bodies and individual companies alike, it remains an issue of the greatest importance.
Studies repeatedly tell us that young people are looking for careers in financial services, media, travel, IT and environmental studies. Graduates today seem far less likely to see engineering and project management as careers of choice. Hardly surprising for an industry that, historically, has not had the profits to match the financial rewards provided by other sectors.
A recent article in a national newspaper revealed that 76% of today's students rate employability as one of the most important factors when choosing a degree course. Clearly the burden of loans and tuition fees makes the chance of a good job more important than the prospect of a lively social life.
So why not choose a career in engineering and construction services – an industry that has an output of more than £1bn every week? The market is buoyant and there are lots of major projects underway. Extensive work programmes in the transport, health, utilities, oil and gas, commercial and retail and leisure sectors are keeping Britain's largest industry busy. And our workload offers an array of opportunities for the school leaver and graduate alike.
So what can be done?
Clearly our industry needs to redouble its efforts if we are to attract the next generation from our schools, colleges and universities. We must reach out beyond our normal recruitment efforts, scholarships and work placement programmes. We must seek to engage the next generation.
Companies must do much more than just posting job opportunities – we must help the next generation learn more about the exciting challenges in our industry as well as the support that talented individuals can expect to receive as they move ahead in their careers. We must also provide them with a stimulating work environment, the best technology to do the job and a level of financial reward that compares favourably with other sectors.
It was encouraging to hear Brian Wilson, the industry minister, recently backing calls to attract more graduates into construction. In his speech during National Construction Week, he acknowledged that construction has an image problem and has repeatedly failed to attract bright young people.
Focusing on the problem facing us all, he said: "Every company needs to stay competitive in order to survive and grow. That means recruiting a steady stream of new talent – bright young recruits who can generate the new ideas, the enthusiasm and the energy to keep a business ahead of the rest."
In a similar way, I was impressed by the comments of BP Amoco deputy group chief executive Rodney Chase, who recently remarked: "Knowledge is embodied in people and they are the real key to the next level of productivity …
76% of students rate employability as important in a degree course – the burden of loans and tuition fees makes the chance of a good job more important than the social life
No oil rig has ever walked into my office with a great new idea. That's why in the new connected knowledge economy, our main battle is the battle for human talent."
And this is a battle we must win. Today, participation in our industry can mean anything from working in multidisciplinary teams or solving technical challenges on large infrastructure projects, to finding better ways to help clients operate safely and productively – as Amec does, for example, by using satellite technology to track massive icebergs and tow them away from remote oil and gas platforms.
At Amec, as with most large employers, we have a number of programmes that help us ensure we attract and retain the most talented people and help them achieve their potential.
This year, in the UK alone, we have employed more than 100 graduates in all areas of engineering and management. We then support them with accredited development programmes to achieve chartered status and a range of technical and personal effectiveness training initiatives. We are also sponsoring about 70 of our key people through a variety of postgraduate qualifications.
One of these is a technology-based, distance learning programme in professional project management. Offering a masters degree, the programme is run through the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology and was developed in collaboration with Rolls-Royce and TRW. It currently has 130 delegates from the three companies at various stages. Its modular format makes it suitable for those established in project management roles who want to build on their practical experience and for those wishing to move into this vital career path.
With our respective North American activities in mind, we asked UMIST to identify an appropriate US university through which the same opportunity could be offered to our employees there. This has resulted in a twinning arrangement with Penn State University, which is now rolling out its own programme in project management in collaboration with UMIST.
In summary, I would stress that it is essential we reach the "bright young people" that Wilson refers to – both at school and as graduates – and convince them that our industry can provide an exciting, stimulating and challenging career. We must offer structured careers to allow continued professional development; we must provide the best and most sophisticated tools available with which to do the job; and we have to offer alternative, competitive financial reward packages.
As an industry, we are constantly taking innovative steps to make more efficient use of our resources. We know we offer real career opportunities to those joining us for the first time – now we must convince the next generation.
Peter Mason is chief executive of Amec.