A WHITE-COLLAR skills crisis engulfing the industry is hampering major projects and threatening safety standards on site.
The Channel Tunnel Rail Link is suffering a chronic shortage of engineers and is struggling to put together a design team for section two of the route.
And a shortfall of safety professionals means contractors cannot provide adequate health and safety cover on site.
Sixty top engineering jobs are still vacant on the second phase CTRL and construction manager Rail Link Engineering has turned to a host of recruitment agencies to confront the problem.
The scarcity of engineers, including senior engineers and geotechnical engineers, has been blamed on opportunities overseas. Some are also understood to have left the CTRL when their work on section one was completed.
An industry source said: 'I'm not surprised they're still looking for people. They could go to one of the big consulting engineers of course, but they've already got their hands full.'
And one agency boss admitted it would be difficult to find 60 engineers.
He said: 'That is a lot to fill and it's not going to be easy. To get 60 people you might have to put forward about 600 CVs.'
A CTRL spokesman said: 'We will continue to recruit staff for the procurement and pre-construction process which culminates in a start on site for the major civil engineering works for section two in summer 2001.'
The shortage of safety professionals is highlighted in a survey of 100 construction firms by specialist recruiter Sypol Liberty Risk Services, which revealed that 50 of them had vacancies for health and safety professionals.
And experts with the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health's construction specialist group estimate that the industry is suffering a shortage of 5,000 safety professionals.
John Lacey, a member of the IOSH construction specialist group, said: 'This survey only serves to confirm our belief that a shortage of qualified safety personnel is a major factor in the construction industry's poor safety record.'
Sypol director Shirley Parsons said most of the vacancies were for site- based health and safety professionals, who would typically be overseeing two or three projects.
Small and medium-sized firms are likely to be worse hit since they may not have the resources to train people to take on health and safety roles.
The shortage of skilled people is also boosting wages in the sector.
Ms Parsons said: 'There's a steady increase in salaries because if you cannot get the people, you have to pay.'
A company health and safety manager with a large contractor said that health and safety officers were commanding wages of between £25,000 and £30,000. He said: 'We have certainly found a problem of recruiting the people of the right calibre, qualification and experience.'