What Happens When There’s Nobody to Build the Infrastructure We Need?

The question posed by the title is neither rhetorical or hypothetical. It’s a real and pressing issue.
At the same time as the outlook for infrastructure business is booming, we are facing a growing problem with attracting and retaining the skills and talent we need. To solve the problem the entire industry needs to work together, and in partnership with government and education.

On the positive side, the pipeline of major infrastructure projects is growing. The importance of sustained infrastructure investment has rarely been more keenly understood. But the question remains: who will build and maintain our infrastructure?

We are losing skilled workers to retirement faster than we can replace them with young people or people deciding to re-skill and try working in a different sector.

There is still uncertainty about the futures of the 8% of the construction workforce who are EU nationals, never mind the fact that the UK appears less welcoming to other EU workers who might be tempted to join them.

Just to be clear, we’re talking about having at least an additional 250,000 construction and 150,000 engineering construction workers in post by 2020. The stark truth is that many EU workers have skills and experience that home-grown talent cannot replace in the short to medium term.

The status of EU workers is clearly an issue for government. But the sector must work together to make sure that nobody is in any doubt about the consequences of adopting a ‘hard line.’

Growing our Own Workforce

As an industry, we have to ask ourselves why so many young people would rather spend 3 years accumulating debt at university, only to end up in a low paid non-graduate job, rather than join a thriving sector full of opportunities and exciting career paths. The industry they see is clearly not the same as the one we see and we need to get to grips with why this is.

We must do a better job of engaging young people. This is more than simply ‘selling the opportunities.’ Young people are already bombarded by marketing messages so one more isn’t likely to have much impact. We need to show them the opportunity by providing stimulating experiences. And we need to engage them in a conversation about what they want from their future careers.

Osborne is proud to support initiatives such as the 5% Club, in which members aim to achieve 5% of their UK workforce in ‘earn and learn’ positions. As part of our commitment to social value, we always seek opportunities to encourage new recruits from local communities and disadvantaged groups. Valuable as these are, we also know they are pieces in a much larger puzzle.

There’s no single, simple answer to growing the infrastructure workforce. There are many answers that need to be developed and coordinated. But if we don’t start finding answers quickly there’s a genuine risk that we’ll be facing the question we started with: what happens when there’s nobody to build and maintain the infrastructure we need?