Skills for Infrastructure and Construction – Time for Positive Thinking

Talking about a skills crisis in construction and infrastructure is starting out with a negative mind set. There are certainly pressures, and urgent action needs to be taken. But we are a practical sector and solving problems is what we do.
The pressures come from three main sources:

1. Supply side issues: We lost over 400,000 posts during the last downturn and over 700,000 people are expected to retire over the next 10 years. We are not attracting enough recruits with the right skills to replace these people and Brexit could have a major impact. On the positive side, we know the challenge we are facing.

2. Demand: Major projects such as HS2, Crossrail and Hinkley Point are major drains for skilled workers. Where does this leave scheduled improvements and maintenance of our highways network?

3. Technology: Do staff throughout the supply chain have the right skills for modern infrastructure and construction projects? The new skills we lack include digital design, data management, and skills that reflect the increasing use of offsite with advanced manufacturing techniques.

What We Need

As a matter of urgency, we need clear and realistic skills priorities within post Brexit immigration policy. We cannot afford a situation where the sector fails to pursue opportunities because of uncertainties over labour supply or cost. There are many other actions needed to improve the quantity and quality of homegrown talent in the longer term, but these will not happen quickly enough to fill the short-term skills gap.

We need to reform education and training – and get it right! The reforms proposed in the Sainsbury Review aimed at simplifying the often baffling maze of technical qualifications are particularly welcome. Longer term curriculum reforms that teach the relevant technology, problem solving, teamwork and communication skills we need are also essential.

The proposed ‘T’ Level courses also look like good news. But what will they will actually deliver? There’s a need for urgency but will a 2019/20 launch leave enough time to get it right? We cannot afford another false dawn as we had with Diplomas, GNVQs etc.

Be Proud of What We Can Offer

We should also stop getting hung up on ‘parity of esteem’ between vocational and academic education. The reality of academic education for many is the acquisition of a large amount of debt to end up in a non-graduate job that uses little of what they learned beyond GCSE. In construction and engineering we can offer fulfilling and lucrative careers via a number of pathways.

We can design even better pathways and offer the careers, we can’t do much about how people choose to perceive them. Within this, we need more part time degrees from leading universities and more pathways from apprenticeships to HE.

Careers advice for people of all ages is another challenge. The expert input that showcases the skills and occupations involved in planning and executing a modern highways project has to come from the industry.

Throughout the industry we must redouble our efforts to recruit more widely and to become more inclusive. We also need more opportunities for existing staff to update their skills and retrain. Hopefully we can find imaginative ways for employers and government to share the cost. These measures could also be part of a drive to encourage people back into the industry.

Support for training and development must trickle down the tiers of the supply chain. It’s no help if Tier 1 contractors demand financial flexibility to support staff development if they don’t offer the same advantages to their supply chain.

There is plenty to do, that’s for sure. But as we said at the top, these are known problems, not something that is going to blindside us. When we get it right there will be huge benefits for asset operators, contractors, education and the national finances.

If we open our eyes, every contract we tender can be part of the solution, every project we execute can be part of the solution. It cannot be somebody else’s problem to solve.  We must all work together with a clear sense of purpose to find answers.

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