Companies must help address skills shortage

The skills shortage threatens to cause irreversible damage to the UK engineering industry. Mouchel Parkman's Ruth Allen calls for positive action.

The UK's reputation as world leader and innovator in water technology is in danger of being flushed away irretrievably unless positive action is taken quickly.

Within the industry, the perils of an escalating skills shortage are widely recognised. But the growing fear is that, without rapid intervention, the long-term damage could be irreversible. While the debate is under way, the priority must now be to take it to the top of the boardroom agenda right across the sector.

This view was expressed recently at a seminar into skills shortages within the utility industry by Ruth Allen, Mouchel Parkman's newly appointed water sector director following the recent acquisition of Ewan Group, where she previously held the post of chief executive.

According to Allen, who is also international chairman of the Pipeline Industries Guild, while there are initiatives out there and a lot of companies working hard to take up the gauntlet, little is being done in a coordinated way with the industry's full weight. "We've got a big problem on our hands. And we must address it otherwise the whole industry is going to suffer in the future.

"However, it's not beyond us yet. The threat is very real, but we're a large and powerful industry with a loud voice. We need to use this voice and work together with government to address the need now before it's too late."

While a dearth of qualified engineers is affecting the utility industry and construction as a whole, within the water sector, successes in AMP4 Frameworks and the rising need for contracting and consultancy services in general have compounded the issue further.

Unfulfilled demand for engineering skills spans the spectrum from board level to site services. Mouchel Parkman's new water sector director is pioneering a campaign that she believes is essential and must form part of a sustained and coordinated industry-wide initiative to reverse the decline.

"Every organisation within our industry must be alert to the seriousness of the situation," Allen says. "It's time to start thinking about how we prevent other high-profile sectors luring away the brightest talent.

"We must also address what is often a negative perception of our industry resulting in little incentive to consider the utilities as a career in the first place and disillusionment for those already within the sector," she adds.

Mouchel Parkman's own initiatives form part of a group-wide strategy from grass roots up. This means developing opportunities to motivate young people to consider engineering as a career, especially within the context of the water and environmental sectors.

The organisation has strengthened existing links and fostered new associations with schools, colleges and universities. In practice, this means devoting time and resources to careers coaching; work placement schemes; delivering specialist lectures; identifying and supporting postgraduate studies and research; competitions and open days.

Working alongside and supporting professional industry organisations such as the Pipeline Industries Guild, Ciwem and the Institution of civil Engineers also forms an important part of the strategy, and Allen has been proactive in setting up and supporting networks to motivate, retain and develop young engineers.

Another important aspect is the provision of training and personal development of all levels of engineers, technical and site services workforces, while mentoring by senior personnel is another option that will continue to be encouraged. According to Allen, the real test for the water and environmental sectors will come over the next decade when the demands of the Water Framework Directive start to impact.

"The skills shortage represents one of our biggest challenges," she says. "We're going to need a more strategic view from an industry-wide forum. We've got to work together on this one."

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