HR’s role in building vital infrastructure skills

Projects such as Crossrail require a pipeline of skills/REX/Shutterstock

The Government announced ambitious plans to invest almost £500 billion in improving the UK’s infrastructure at the last budget. But how can we build a talent pipeline to ensure these projects are completed on time? HR has a role to play, argues Paul McCormick of engineering company AECOM. 

Infrastructure investment in the UK continues to gain momentum. Earlier this year, the Government published the National Infrastructure Delivery Plan, which outlines details of £483 billion worth of investment in over 600 infrastructure projects and programmes.

From Highways England and Transport for London projects to Crossrail 2, HS2, and the Thames Tideway in London, there are ambitious plans in all sectors across the UK.

But given the scale of the new projects and major maintenance and renewal programmes in the pipeline, the challenge for industry will be to ensure the right skills are in place to deliver these schemes when they start to ramp up in 2017 and beyond.

HR departments have a vital role to play in achieving this aim. The UK’s ambitious infrastructure pipeline is likely to put strains on the industry’s skills base for many years.

Capacity gaps

The National Infrastructure Plan for Skills published in 2015 identified a need to recruit and train nearly 100,000 additional workers by the end of this decade, as well as retrain and up-skill around 250,000 of the existing workforce over the next 10 years.

While this certainly goes some way towards identifying capacity gaps and informing companies’ recruitment strategies, increased certainty around infrastructure delivery is still required if industry is to truly tackle the skills agenda. This is a real opportunity for the HR department to support the business as never before.

Part of the solution is attracting talent through a variety of different routes, with apprenticeships essential for the delivery of future schemes.

Apprentices joining the industry now will play a meaningful role on projects in a few years’ time – precisely when their skills will be needed most. Like many employers in this sector, AECOM has stepped up its apprenticeship recruitment and will be hiring more apprentices than ever this year.

In April, the Government launched the Strategic Transport Apprenticeship Taskforce (STAT), which aims to bring together employers to address the skills gap in the transportation sector. STAT was established to support the Government’s commitment to treble the number of apprenticeships in transport by 2020.

The group’s members will work together to support the development and uptake of transport apprenticeships in both client organisations and through the supply chain. Greater collaboration should encourage more investment in skills, helping build capacity in the transport sector.

However, a large number of proposed infrastructure projects and programmes are likely to draw on similar areas of the supply chain. To address the skills gap, an integrated approach to planning across all sectors involved in the delivery of the UK’s major infrastructure projects and programmes is surely required.

New blood

With many in the existing workforce edging towards retirement, apprenticeships will also be an important vehicle to help build certain specialist skills that would otherwise be lost when people retire. AECOM’s apprenticeship development programme includes training for the types of skills that we know will be needed to deliver future projects.

Our work with the Technician Apprenticeship Consortium (TAC) is developing new apprenticeship programmes for in-demand disciplines, including transport planning and rail.

Parts of the industry are also taking steps to address specific resource gaps. The Tunnelling and Underground Construction Academy (TUCA) provides specialist training in the necessary tunnel excavation and underground construction skills to work on Crossrail and other schemes.

In anticipation of the need for more high speed rail skills, a new National College for High Speed Rail is due to open in Birmingham 2017.

These types of initiatives are an effective way to facilitate collaboration between the public sector, businesses and their supply chains to increase the availability of key skills.

Indeed, collaboration is seen by business as crucial to helping deliver the skills the UK needs, according to the CBI/AECOM Infrastructure Survey 2015. Nearly three-quarters (71%) of respondents believe greater business-to-business collaboration is key to boosting skills.

But for industry to create the necessary levels of apprenticeships, the definition of an apprentice will most likely need to be broadened. Apprenticeships should not always be targeted at school leavers as an alternative to higher education.

Experience-based learning is vital across all levels and encouraging mid-career changers and returners to consider the apprenticeship route is also key. With a rise of new digital technologies, industry is going to require a different mix of skills in the future so attracting and training the right talent from outside the industry is critical.

Changing perceptions

Perhaps the biggest challenge to building capacity is changing the perception of what an engineer does. There are a number of stereotypes about careers in engineering and construction, but the reality is often very different. From iconic buildings and vital infrastructure to resilient communities and environments, the work delivered by engineers is vital to society.

The sector must therefore get better at capturing the imagination of young people. Outreach programmes with schools can be an effective way to open young people’s eyes to a career in the sector. Problem-solving work, such as building structures using marshmallows and straws, can help pupils see what a career in engineering could involve.

Encouraging new people into the profession and building capacity through apprenticeships must be accelerated if the UK is to deliver its ambitious infrastructure pipeline. HR departments must be poised to take on the challenge.

Paul McCormick

About Paul McCormick

Paul McCormick is Managing Director - Transportation, UK & Ireland and Continental Europe, AECOM.
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