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Sewing The Seeds

Much has been said about an impending shortage of skills to meet the nation’s 21st Century infrastructure needs at all levels in industry.

A crisis was predicted ahead of Crossrail and the 2012 Olympics, yet projects have continued, new people have been trained, and projects are being completed successfully.

Earlier this year Infrastructure UK launched its National Infrastructure Plan for Skills, setting out the resource needs over the coming years. But where will they come from, and how can supply expand to meet the projected demand?

It is a significant challenge; but also a tremendous opportunity to rethink the skills needed and find new ways of tapping into them.

So New Civil Engineer is partnering with Costain to run a series of discussions and research projects to focus on ways of meeting the challenge, culminating in a White Paper to be published in spring 2016.

Costain infrastructure managing director Darren James set out the goals at our first discussion, last month.

“There is much noise, alongside some tangible evidence, that there is a looming skills shortage, but far too much of it has been negatively focusing on it being a “crisis” and a “problem”,” he said.

“Having seen some brilliant successes at Costain, and also at some of the clients that we work with, in terms of what you can do to turn what I would prefer to call a challenge into an opportunity rather than the negative connotation crisis, we’d say ‘what can we do to set a positive agenda around the skills agenda?’”

Our first discussion initially reflected on the recently published National Infrastructure Plan for Skills. Joining us was Terry Morgan, recently appointed to develop the transport and infrastructure skills strategy.

Morgan led a debate centred on the responsibilities for stimulating new investment and new initiatives that could resolve any potential threat to the creation of the right number and quality of skills.

Last month’s Spending Review reinforced where government sees its role in the challenge. Chancellor George Osborne restated the Conservative manifesto pledge that 3M apprenticeships will have started by 2020 and that by 2019/20 government spending on apprenticeships will double the level of spending in 2010/11. This partially includes income from the new apprenticeship levy on larger employers from April 2017, announced in the Summer Budget.


“There are some huge projects that don’t have a skills agenda attached to them in terms of insisting that the supply chain actually make a full commitment”

Terry Morgan, National Infrastructure Plan for Skills

Each employer will receive an allowance of £15,000 to offset against their levy payment, meaning that it will only be paid on any pay bill in excess of £3M, affecting less than 2% of UK employers. By 2019/20, the levy will raise £3bn in the UK.

“As a sector I am interested in how we secure the funding,” began Morgan.

“We don’t necessarily need to rely on public sector programmes,” he said, adding that there are some big projects that could take more of a lead.

“The very big public contracts that come out of the public sector are substantive gamechangers and there are some huge projects that don’t have a skills agenda attached to them in terms of insisting that the supply chain actually make a full commitment,” he said.

“The better [firms] do it naturally but there will be some who are … not making a commitment who will think they have a choice.

“And I don’t think on this particular subject they have a choice.” Crossrail, and specifically the setting up of the associated Tunnelling and Underground Construction Academy (TUCA), is a case in point.

It has already had its successes – it had an objective of 400 joining by 2018 and it is now almost at 500.

“TUCA is not the finished model,” Morgan said. “But it was the first, from my point of view, of its kind.

“What underpinned it was within Crossrail the determination to create legacy, across a number of themes, with skills definitely one of them,” he said.

The challenge now is for it not to be a one-off.

“It was always a challenge not to make it sound like a one off,” he said, adding that one clear legacy tie in came with the prospect of the Tideway mega-sewer tunnel of following on.

High Speed 2 has a great potential to drive the skills agenda too.

Morgan thinks it could even help these major public infrastructure projects win the political and then public support and open up new business opportunities for consultants, contractors and the specialist suppliers that support them. Focusing on the skills agenda right from the start could be the winning strategy, Morgan suggested.

“High Speed 2 (HS2) has had some difficulty on messaging,” said Morgan. “What was it about, what were its priorities? It created this vision of travelling from Birmingham to London in 10 minutes less than you would now.

“But it changed its tack and started to get the big macroeconomics of what this is actually going to do for the UK economy. And that included skills. It announced that it’s going to have at least 2,000 apprentices in the programme and it is recalibrating that now to actually determine whether it can do a lot more.”

One of those extra efforts is the creation of two new high speed rail technology colleges – one in Doncaster, one in Birmingham – of whose governing boards Morgan is chair. That will no doubt help firms believe in the government’s commitment. But it is in danger of losing its credibility with the Tories’ manifesto declaration that there would be 3M apprentices by 2020.

Morgan points out “in very simplistic terms” to hit that target would mean that every school leaver between now and 2020 must become an apprentice.

“I think that’s very unlikely but it does demonstrate that we’re going to have to be fleet of foot and we’re going to have to recognise that there are going to have to be different types of apprenticeships from the ones that we recognise today,” he said.

“We have to create a storybook about how do we take people from level two all the way to levels six and seven. And that could mean that individuals might find themselves going through three different apprenticeship programmes in order to develop the full set of skills that we need in industry.”

Morgan also warned against government becoming too caught up in the bureaucracy of how the skills commitment is followed up. The announcement within the Skills 2020 vision that there will be a new independent quality body, the Institute for Apprenticeships, needs to tread with care. 

“There are going to have to be different types of apprenticeships from the ones that we recognise today,”

Terry Morgan, National Infrastructure Plan for Skills

“The bureaucracy of government could actually frustrate the opportunity that this change will bring about and we’re all promised it won’t but we shall see what happens over time,” he said. “But the importance of actually demonstrating that industry can be accountable for delivering the agenda, I think, is really important.”

James acknowledged the need for the industry to lead on the initiatives that are already underway in the traditional realms of engineering, but also suggested there was more that can be done to open up the skills initiatives to ensure the breadth of engineering is well represented.

“The use of technology is an important aspect of what we’re doing so it’s not just about getting people involved,” he suggested. “It’s about how we cope with people we’ve got with an investment in technology.

“We haven’t even begun to tap into the sort of people that would love to join this industry because there are adjacent skills sets, adjacent attitudes and aptitudes, that we could absolutely harness. There’s absolutely, in my mind, no shortage of potential skills.

“What we’re doing in the way we behave is not enabling those skills to come into the industry.”

More analysis of the views from the discussion will feature in the next issue of New Civil Engineer, as we continue to discuss and debate the Skills for 2020 throughout 2016.


This article first appeared in NCE