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Engineering will survive economic armageddon

ENGINEERS are taken for granted according John Power. Their work is all around us, he says. "They work to produce our entertainment, communications, aviation, communication and many other fields" he says. "The disadvantage is that this is taken for granted."

Mr Power, the director general of Engineers Ireland, a 176-year-old body with 24,000 members in Ireland, is on a mission to get students interested in this career that he says will endure the good and bad times.

"By training, engineers are problem solvers," he explains. "They are pretty adaptable and can cope with change perhaps better than graduates in other disciplines."

These qualities, together with an aptitude for maths and science, will be highlighted by Mr Power and hundreds of other engineers to students throughout Ireland during Engineers Week which begins on February 27.

For the fourth successive year they will be telling young people that they can make a big difference working as engineers.

While most have worked in building and infrastructure, as civil engineers, increasingly the profession is expanding into areas such as electrical, energy, biomedical and information technology which are all doing well during Ireland's deep economic crisis.

"All of the major information technology and pharmaceutical companies are now based in Ireland," he says, "and most of the jobs being created now and in the future will be in these sectors."

He is firmly in the camp that believes maths and science are not being taught well in our schools but he acknowledges moves by Education Minister Ruairi Quinn to address this.

"There is no quick fix but the minister is undertaking a fundamental review of maths and science which is important.

"We need to ensure that kids coming out of primary school are not afraid of maths and science and that those leaving secondary school have a sufficient appreciation of these subjects to make informed choices," he says.

And he wants to see them applying in greater numbers for college courses that offer good prospects for future employment.

"It is very important that we don't populate courses with people who may not get jobs. That will leave us with a lot of very disillusioned graduates," he says.

The one sector that is suffering is civil engineering. Now that many of the big projects to build roads, schools and other infrastructure have been shelved due to lack of money, many have lost their jobs. "They are having a tough time," he says. "A number have emigrated, and many of them wanted to anyway. Since God was a boy people have been emigrating from Ireland and many returned and brought back their experience and skills here. Unfortunately, some are being forced to emigrate and hopefully this won't continue."

Engineers Ireland is promoting retraining opportunities for civil engineers to allow them to move into sectors where there are jobs. "It is in their best interest to do this and by re-training they are sending out a message that they are willing to do that."


But Mr Power also wants to see more investment in this sector. "Infrastructure projects will always deliver positive results and create jobs.

"I believe that every economy needs a construction sector. And even though Ireland is in a bad way, there are some infrastructural deficits still to be addressed here and opportunities can be created."

There are energy schemes that can be introduced, he says, and the controversial issues around septic tanks must be addressed. The latter, according to Mr Power, is a "significant environmental issue" for Ireland.

"We need safe drinking water for children and we have a responsibility to make that right. And while no one wants to impose more taxes we do need to do the right thing here and we are supportive of the government stance here."

He is also mindful of the growing black economy that is emerging in the wake of the property crash and this is something he also wants to see government action on.

"That space needs to be controlled and managed," he says. "Let's not allow the black economy to develop in a way that will cost all of us in the future.

"We can do this by ensuring that only people registered to carry out the work on any of these initiatives are registered to do them and will be paying VAT and tax to the Exchequer."

And, not surprisingly, he believes his profession should get the bulk of this work.

"This shouldn't be done by someone who has done a two- week Fas course but by chartered engineers, architects and quantity surveyors.

"This ensures that the people doing the job know what is expected of them and can be held responsible for it" Power says. Standards and quality are something he says are upheld by people in his profession.

During the construction boom though, we now know that standards were often sacrificed in the quest to build more and more houses and apartments.


And there is no greater example of the worst of the mistakes that were made than the fiasco that is the Priory Hall apartment complex in Dublin that will cost a fortune to repair.

"I am not into the blame game but we need to learn from the Priory Hall experience. The building controls and enforcement of them should have been very important in that scheme. Unfortunately I think other Priory Halls will emerge," Mr Power says.

He would like the Government to ensure that projects like these must be signed off by a chartered engineer.

"That should be part of the law and would be in all of our interests," he says. "Chartered engineers are competent people and can be held accountable for their work."

Aspiring to the highest standards in professions like these can only assist IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland in creating jobs here in the future, he says.

"We have been impressing on the Government that if we continue to raise standards Ireland will be very attractive for foreign direct investment.

"We can't stand still. We need to keep getting better. Quality and standards will always stand the test of time."

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