Blog Type, Industry Sector, Manufacturing | November 2016

Boosting Skills for the UKs Infrastructure Projects

Successive governments have set out new and innovative infrastructure investment plans, promising better capacity, efficiency and speed over land and sea, however the success of these plans faces a huge challenge; the serious skills shortage in the construction and engineering sectors. The National Infrastructure Plan for Skills has predicted that there will be a demand for over 250,000 skilled construction and engineering professionals by 2020, which will mean a shortfall of over 100,000 based on today’s workforce. Therefore, now more than ever, the UK needs to focus on attracting talented individuals to pursue a career in construction and engineering.

On Wednesday 2 November 2016, the Industry and Parliament Trust (IPT) hosted a breakfast meeting exploring the topic of boosting skills for the UKs Infrastructure Projects. By bringing together academics, industry specialists and parliamentarians this meeting created a platform for discussing what measures can be implemented by both industry and governments to ensure that skilled construction and engineering professionals are entering the UK’s work pool and how we can encourage young people to consider careers in the built environment sector. The main theme in the discussion was education, but how can our education system at primary, secondary and university level, be changed to boost skills for the UKs infrastructure projects?

The skills challenge

The construction and engineering industry is currently facing three skills related challenges; a skills shortage, a skills gap, and a skills drift. The skills shortage refers to there simply not being enough trained professionals working in the industry. The skills gap is the gap between what employers want or need their employees to be able to do, and the skills those employees actually possess. Finally the skills drift refers to the movement of skilled professionals migrating abroad to London and the South East which exacerbates the skills shortage elsewhere.

How can we stop the skills shortage?

The UK needs to bring more workers into the infrastructure market through new apprentices and by attracting skilled workers from other industries. The government’s commitment to increase the number of apprenticeships in England to 3 million by 2020 should help attract school leavers to the industry but it is in the hands of the companies to provide the training. As 90% of construction companies are SMEs the government needs to provide better support and information to these smaller companies to make it easier for them to take on apprentices.

As well as school leavers, there are other pools of untapped talent including graduates in other disciplines, ex-servicemen and women, career break returners and ex-convicts. Also, as 13.7% of young people (16-24 year olds) are unemployed, they could be another audience of prime candidates. It is only by attracting diverse new talent that we will be able to fill the skills shortage. The skills gap requires companies to go a step further by retraining and up-skilling the existing workforce to deliver improved productivity and performance. The key to attracting more, and retaining existing, talent is making careers in construction and engineering more attractive and as accessible as possible.

What should industry and Government do?

One clear recommendation was to provide better careers advice in schools. This stems from the need for children to be fully aware of the options available to them, when picking GCSE’s / A Level options. It was also suggested that schools should be open to champions from industry coming in to discuss career options, taking children to various infrastructure projects and demonstrating the breadth of career paths in the construction industry. Such a move would be the next step from the current STEM ambassadors, truly identifying construction and engineering as exciting careers to pursue.

There is also need for a cultural change, moving away from viewing apprenticeships as a less prestigious route into a career than completing a degree. There is a need for schools to focus less on the number of students that move on to university, especially Russell group universities, and instead look at what skills individual students need to get on the right career track for them. This institutional change will hopefully happen once the end point and standardised assessment of quality for apprenticeships are agreed upon.

As it takes time to train new talent companies need more assurance about a projects life cycle to be able to better predict the amount and consistency of the work load. This is something the government can encourage in its own schemes which will then hopefully build similar confidence in the private sector infrastructure projects.

The UK needs people with the skills to design and build infrastructure projects but we also need people with the skills to maintain these projects after completion. The success of future infrastructure projects is reliant on attracting and developing the right talent and ensuring a balance of skill set between generations and different levels of experience. It is therefore imperative that the government and industry work collaboratively on this as soon as possible to prevent the skills gap widening and the skills shortage growing, as to do nothing would be catastrophic for the UK economy.