Tackling the water skills drought

The UK leads the world in water technology and yet we're facing a skills shortage that could cause irrevocable damage to the long-term future of our industry. The dearth of qualified engineers is affecting construction as a whole, but within the water sector the successes in AMP4 Frameworks and the rising need for contracting and consultancy services have compounded the issue and means there's an increasing need for engineering skills at all levels.

In the 1970s, as work in the Middle East took off, an engineering degree was an attractive proposition with the lure of exotic overseas postings and high salaries. But things have changed. The working abroad is not as appealing and the UK's focus on cost-cutting and efficiency has hit the construction industry hard. While this focus has been positive, and customers have benefited financially, as engineers and scientists we must be sure that such a cost-cutting culture is in the interests of the consumer.

Cost-reducing initiatives impact on everyone in the supply chain. Not only do these measures affect the quality of workmanship and services, they have affect the salaries and benefits of employees delivering them. The construction industry has become a poor relation in the wake of the boom in IT and telecoms. These sectors have lured the brightest prospects.

While numbers applying for relevant degree courses are increasing, we must ensure conditions are right within the industry as numbers of students graduating from British universities are far lower than China, for example. We must do more not only to motivate today's youth to consider engineering as an exciting and rewarding career option, but specifically within the water sector. We must work closely with schools, colleges and universities to attract and support aspiring engineers.

Methods include careers coaching, work placement schemes, delivering specialist lectures and supporting postgraduate studies. Several firms are proactive in these areas, and Ewan Group itself has links with Imperial College, the University of Northern Ireland, Exeter and Sheffield Universities as well as local schools and colleges.

A number of organisations such as the Pipeline Industries Guild, CIWEM and ICE have put in place networks to motivate, retain and develop young engineers. These must be supported. While there are useful measures in place, it's not enough. We need to take a more strategic view through a dedicated forum. This could pull together the best of the regional, industry association and university initiatives and apply them more effectively.
Over the next decade there will be crucial issues to address for the water industry and the environment in the UK not least arising from the demands of the Water Framework Directive. Without the right strategy to attract the nation's brightest talent in the first place and then retain them, we shall not be able to deliver against these demands.

We must act now and attract talent to the water industry otherwise our place as world leaders in these technologies is in jeopardy.

Ruth Allen is chief executive of Ewan Group, and international chairman of the Pipeline Industries Guild. T: 01285 850415.

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