Put the wheels in motion: Careers in engineering cover a huge span of economic activity in the UK

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The Independent Online

Where would we be without engineers? Living in caves, clothed in animal skins and eating little more than fruit off the trees; that's where, because without engineers – making things out of the Earth's natural resources to make human existence more varied and bearable – we'd still be in the Dark Ages.

Just think of what you've done today: boiled a kettle; squeezed toothpaste from a tube; walked along a pavement; caught a bus; sent an email; got cash from a hole in the wall; and had lunch in a canteen. None of this would have been possible without the research, design and manufacturing efforts of mechanical, chemical, civil and electrical engineers. And these examples cover a mere fraction of the areas of life where engineers are indispensable.

So, it should be no surprise to hear that careers in engineering crop up across the employment landscape, and, because the world is changing with new discoveries and challenges bearing down on us in equal measure, it's impossible to imagine a time when engineering skills won't be in demand.

As director of education at the Royal Academy of Engineering, Professor Matthew Harrison has a good view of the breadth of engineering activity within the British economy. "It goes from the very, very large, such as civil engineering projects involving huge chunks of concrete, to the very, very small, such as the opto-electronics that increase the processing power of computers," he says. "It's quite common for people to talk of 50 per cent of UK exports having their origins in the engineering process."

Getting to grips with the scale and variety of related career openings is part of the task of university careers departments. At the University of Manchester, for example, Maddie Smith, who gives careers advice to the university's 4,000 engineering students, stresses the range of choices available to graduates: "Even within a specific discipline, engineers could go into research and development, manufacturing or production; and they could work in a laboratory, an office or in the field.

"A chemical engineer, for example, could go into the oil and gas industry, brewing, renewable energy or biochemical engineering, to name just some."

And engineers are also working at the frontiers of research, in alternative fuel generation, nano-technology, medical innovation and prosthetics.

But despite the advances of technology, there's still plenty of need for the traditional hard-hat engineers, and the variety of workplaces they inhabit is also far from narrow.

Costain, the international engineering and construction group based in Maidenhead, takes on around 50 graduates every year, the bulk of whom are civil engineers, all following a three-year programme towards becoming chartered engineers. "The priority within the three years is site experience, and getting them involved in a project from start to finish," says Clare Hardwidge from Costain's recruitment department. "We also move them around, so they get experience of the different sectors and roles."

Costain's graduates, recruited last year, are spread around the country on numerous sites, including a road maintenance project involving motorways in the Manchester area; the building of new schools in London and Bradford; two water treatment projects; and refurbishing and building new offices in central London.

The basic starting salary for these graduates is £23,500, but Costain tops that in some cases, say, for those with first-class degrees, or for recruits returning to the company after doing an industrial placement during a degree course.

But Hardwidge says it's not easy to find graduates with the right talent and academic experience to fill the roles. "Like our competitors across the industry, we find it a challenge to get good graduates with good degrees, which is why we put time and effort into finding them. And when we do find them, we put time and effort into keeping them."

One area almost certain to develop a growing appetite for engineers of many disciplines is the nuclear power sector, given the near certainly that the Government will give the go-ahead for a new generation of nuclear power stations.

However power is generated, it still needs transmitting and distributing. These skills are developed by graduate recruits of the French-based nuclear power firm Areva, in Stafford, where huge transformers are built.

Areva takes around 10 graduates, each year. "We are looking for people with technical aptitude, but also people who can work in a team and have the temperament that might enable them to move into management," says Areva's learning manager, David Kirby.

Which ever route graduates take, it seems clear their working lives will have to respond to rapidly advancing technology as part of a career for life, rather than a job for life.

"Engineering is a safe bet," says Harrison. "But it's almost guaranteed that the branch of engineering that you join will not be the branch that you stay in."