IHE president concerned about skills gap

Highways Reporters

The president of the Institute of Highway Engineers (IHE) has expressed concern about a potential skills gap in the industry.

Speaking in his president’s blog, John Nightingale (pictured) said: “Speak to any of the large institutions in the highway sector and they will probably tell you that there is a significant shortage of skilled and experienced engineers. As we climb out of recession we are beginning to pay the price for rounds of early retirements and redundancies coupled with an under investment in training, skills and recruitment and many employers are finding it difficult to attract new entrants of a sufficient calibre. It’s a natural state of affairs at this time in the economic cycle but is it actually a skills gap or in fact a salary gap?”

According to the Higher Education Funding Council, the numbers of students accepted onto science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) courses have been rising for a number of years with an estimated 98,000 joining courses in 2013/2014.

Nightingale adds: “Numerous sources suggest an average starting salary for graduates entering the engineering profession to be around £26,000 per annum, this is significantly lower than the highest sector average of £45,000 for investment banking and many other sectors which benefit from numerate problem solvers.

“There is a strong possibility that many top achieving engineering graduates (particularly in the London catchment area) are opting for other professions on completion of their course. Exacerbating the new recruitment problem may also be the significant changes made to immigration laws in 2012. Prior to this newly qualified foreign students could apply for a tier 1 post study work visa allowing them to remain in the UK typically for a year after graduating and look for work. Foreign students must now find a licensed sponsor before being given leave to remain.

“So, is the answer simply to increase graduate starting salaries? Well clearly the sector will find it difficult to match top-flight salaries, and any increase in starting salaries puts upward pressure on salaries for staff already employed, but market forces will inevitably force employers to either find more money or become creative in the way they recruit and retain.”

The IHE is offering a range of professional certificates and a new apprentice grade of membership (AppIHE).

“One initiative that may help to fill the gap is apprentice recruitment. Apprentices can make a significant contribution to a company and if supported (and paid) well can become a major asset,” notes Nightingale. “Many will become the engineers of the future. The IHE is well placed to support these initiatives, our portfolio of professional certificates are an excellent route to registration and recognising these opportunities the IHE is creating a new apprentice grade of membership (AppIHE). We want to help these new entrants flourish and remain in the engineering profession.

“That is not to say the problems will simply be solved by new recruits, we need to retain and develop our existing staff. One way of aiding retention and supporting existing staff would be a return to rewards for staff achieving professional registration. This can be an important tool for an employer to encourage staff development and tier salaries. From the registrants point of view we know that the process of going through registration makes you take a critical view of what you do and how you do it and successful registrants are more likely to stay in the sector. It’s not all about the money of course. Let’s hope the upturn in the economy restores some of the pay, conditions and development opportunities for all our members, the IHE will continue to play its part.”

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