Engineering has ceased to be...

With new nuclear stations on the way, can the atom revive a flagging sector?

Government inaction in stemming the flood of kudos from engineering, science and technology, may ultimately delay its own policies.

A recent letter to the Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR), from chief inspector at the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII), Mike Weightman, warns that lack of skills might mean no decision can be made on reactor designs.

Weightman mentions delays in receiving documentation from various parties and the difficulties of talking to overseas regulators and receiving final reactor designs. "But the main concern we have is the continuing lack of an adequate build-up of resources," he writes.

John Hutton, business secretary, admits personnel may be hard to find should a new generation of nuclear power stations finally be commissioned. "As more and more countries seek to insulate themselves against future energy price rises, soaring energy demand and the irrefutable reality of climate change, they're competing hard for the people, investment and technology to enable their own nuclear programmes," he says.

Preliminary proposals to solve the problem are focussed on "measures to improve recruitment and retention of staff at the NII, to ensure that there are sufficient inspectors to review the three reactor designs which energy companies have proposed for new nuclear stations".

There has been particular concern for skills shortages in the power sector, but according to this years report by the IET there is some easing of the problem: "The energy sector showed a spike in those just entering the profession."

Declining stature

In the seventies, most people understood their job titles. Housewives looked after the home, dustmen collected rubbish, and cleaners carried buckets of bleach round hospital wards.

But not everybody was happy with the status quo, and the powerful appellation of "engineer" was jealously eyed from a distance. Until, slowly and surely, everybody was an engineer and CVs brimmed with titles such as domestic engineer, sanitation engineer and refuse engineer.

Three decades of title-inflation later and those same jobs are described as house managers, infection consultants and waste services executives. The common place has become the grandiose.

Yet engineers, by nature, have spurned such obvious spin. After all, a spade's a spade even if the label says "equipment for the management and collation of organic detritus".

But this level-headedness has done nothing to promote the profession to youngsters. Students have turned from engineering to economics, business administration or media studies, beguiled by instant promotion to account executive while the ink on their degree certificates is still wet.

Against this background come frequent reports of engineering doom. Oil and gas is in decline, manufacturing is disappearing overseas, and large construction projects are fleecing the national purse. The perception of the engineer has fallen to that of a grumpy, middle-aged, moustachioed man awaiting retirement by quoting 'Monty Python'.

No wonder there is a skills shortage. The IET Industry Skills report for 2008 says that employers in the engineering and technology sector must recruit staff to meet business expansion plans. "Eighty-one per cent report that they need experienced staff. Experienced staff however, perhaps consequently, are the most difficult to recruit with 49 per cent of employers reporting problems.

"Seventy per cent of companies reported they would recruit graduates and 63 per cent that they would recruit postgraduates."

Matters will only get worse. The CBI predicts a doubling in demand for professional engineers by 2018, and the shortage will be keenly felt by those attempting to grow engineering businesses.

Awaiting decommissioning

Dave Barber, head of training at British Energy, is still concerned for the demographic situation among his experienced engineers. "We've got about 2,000 engineers in science related roles. And probably about 1,200 technicians. About 30 per cent of our staff are over 50 and getting on for 70 per cent are over 40," he explains.

The situation is similar at the NII. "Our inspectors are getting older, there is a difficulty replacing them with younger people who have the qualifications and experience we need," admits a spokesperson at the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

This is hardly surprising. Until very recently, nuclear power generation was a dying industry with its glory days firmly in the past. Few engineers were willing to pursue a career in such circumstances, but now, as long as recent incidents in France do not poison public perception, nuclear is rising from the ashes.

But the young phoenix is not yet fully-fledged. "How do you minimise the lag between the market sending the gear-up signal, and having the trained personnel rolling off the production line?" asks Barber.

He says that while the situation is challenging, it is not currently insurmountable, "but if you start to look forward to the next ten years, if everything falls into line with the licensing and the time scales from planning to construction and being operational in 2018, what will the market look like? There are the demographics of the business to manage plus the increasing competition for professional engineering resource going forward.

"We're almost in a cycle that existed 30 or 40 years ago, with the construction of a lot of new power stations," he adds.

He expects industry will respond to the need for skilled resource with a similar strategy once "new build" is definitely happening. "Employers were offering incentives and sponsoring people through university, so once the demand kicks in I think the academia and industry will gear up to meet it."

Proactive not reactive

Indeed, government, industry and academia are already gearing up, and have been doing so for some time. The Dalton Nuclear Institute, Manchester University, opened in July 2005, after three years in the planning, to act as the engine for the coordination and growth of Manchester's nuclear expertise and become one of the world's leading centres of nuclear research and education.

The Institute's director, Professor Richard Clegg, explains its origins: "With foresight it was being recognised that the UK was going to undergo a nuclear renaissance and was going to need domestic skills and research capability that it lacked. Over the past 20 or 30 years, due to successive privatisations and reorganisations of the industry, around 90-95 per cent of the funding and skills base had gone down the pan."

In addition, the Institute proactively solicits industry and government agencies for funding for post-doctorates and PhDs and invests in it's own programs.

Clegg explains that the concentration of nuclear research and expertise attracts the best postgraduates and undergraduates to the university. "At the undergraduate level we put nuclear content in the curriculum. We get lecturers to come in or we give students the opportunity to do industrial projects or nuclear options as part of the syllabus.

"At the postgraduate and masters level, we have pulled together a consortium to offer a national masters nuclear syllabus. We offer straightforward engineering PhDs, and we also have the nuclear engineering doctorate," he explains.

"It's been a phenomenal success. The UK was going to need a different size and composition of skill base; we knew where this was going to happen, and we got our plans together and built this capability in advance of the market.

"We're ahead of the wave," says Clegg, enthusiastic that any nuclear new-builds will further the Institute's cause.

Jean Llewellyn, chief executive of the National Skills Academy Nuclear (NSA), is also upbeat about the future. The NSA had faced a challenge in retraining nuclear technicians for decommissioning roles, the prospect of dismantling your own career understandably did not appeal.

"It was viewed as very negative, a lot of our work has been about changing that emphasis, in fact there are jobs going for about 100 years in terms of decommissioning. You can't say that about many other engineering disciplines. Now with the new-build coming along, it's suddenly become much more exciting."

Uncontained excitement

That excitement is already resulting in more, and younger, entrants to the industry.

Llewellyn is working with the NDA (Nuclear Decommissioning Authority) to establish a graduate scheme. "They are paid a salary and do a two-year programme; six-month blocks in different parts of the industry. They might do six months defence, they might do six months decommissioning, so they move around with different employers. For 30 places they had about 1,300 applicants."

Yet there are only so many engineers to go round. If the fervour surrounding nuclear continues, won't the rest of British industry suffer higher salaries and greater shortages?

"There's a huge crossover with the oil and gas industry and one of the biggest challenges is oil and gas poaching people from nuclear, and visa versa," admits Llewellyn.

For this to be solved, more must be done at the grass roots to encourage A-level students to consider engineering degrees and younger children to continue with science. "On the attraction side we need to work with schools. The interest in science and technology in general is decreasing. We work with a scheme called the energy foresight program to support the 21st century science curriculum," explains Llewellyn.

But schemes extolling the virtues of maths and science may not be enough; despite engineers' reluctance, 'spin' may be required to make the career appear rewarding in comparison to, say, new media or business studies.

Nick Dettmar, managing director of Roevin, the engineering and technical recruit--ment arm of the Adecco Group, is keen to place ever more engineers in good roles, but he says the sector must get better at marketing. "The best engineers can choose to work where they want in the world, on some of the most exciting, innovative and awe-inspiring projects, and can command the sort of salary that used to be reserved for City bankers.

"More people need to see that at a young age and think 'that's the job for me'."

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