We don't just need better infrastructure—we need better skillsby John Hayes / October 15, 2017 / Leave a comment
The economist Adam Smith understood the power of transport. Without the means to move people and products, he said, “every farmer must be butcher, baker and brewer.” But provide transport and the farmer can concentrate on farming, move his produce to market, and buy bread from the craft bakers in town. The farm flourishes, the farmer prospers, drinks better beer, and everyone benefits.
This observation remains the basis of all transport economics. Yet for me it represents a special insight, uniting two of my greatest passions: the power of transport, and the value of skills. Amongst other roles, I have served as skills minister and transport minister. I have seen how transport can promote skills, allowing students to study and workers to build their prospects by gaining and keeping jobs in another city.
But if transport supports skills, it also depends upon them. And here lies a problem. Today, we are facing an acute shortage of people entering the transport sector—and too few people means too few skills.
At any time, this shortage would cause concern, but right now we’re investing more in our transport networks than in living memory. We are building new railways on a scale unseen since Queen Victoria’s reign, as well as overhauling many existing lines, delivering thousands of new carriages and constructing new stations.
We are building new road bridges, bypasses and tunnels, in the greatest highways investment for a generation. Our maritime industries are spending billions so that our ports can once again take the world’s biggest ships, as Britain’s trading future brightens. And many of our airports, including Manchester, Luton, Heathrow and Gatwick, are contributing to one of the largest enhancements of passenger capacity since the end of the Second World War.
In all, we anticipate that our country needs an extra 35,000 transport apprentices between now and 2022. A further 10,000 apprentices—spread across the country—are expected to be needed for a possible expansion of Heathrow.
Even these stark numbers, don’t truly reflect a second challenge: the huge technological change taking place in transport. Someone who entered the transport industry just five years ago could have emerged from training possessing skills almost entirely wholly recognised by their forefathers.
The way infrastructure was built, how cars worked, how railways were controlled—all these were considered settled, the product of a hundred and more years of technological refinement.
Now that’s all being swept away, by the electric engine, navigational autonomy, digitalisation, and the “internet of things.” The transport worker of today and tomorrow is as likely to wield a virtual reality headset as a spanner. We need transport professionals with different skills: cyber security, digital signalling, and intelligent traffic management.
Thanks to the work of the government’s Strategic Transport Apprenticeship Taskforce, the industry is taking steps to address the skills challenge, encouraging more apprentices, women and people from other underrepresented groups to join the industry.
Perhaps the most effective change always begins at root. So that means the colleges and universities who are today teaching the transport professionals of tomorrow must quickly see what is to be done and get upon it.
This is why, last month, I established a new Education Advisory Group: a team of education experts who will advise me on how we can better equip young people for a career in transport. The Group will look at how we can inspire young people to pursue careers in transport, how we can encourage them to study subjects that support that choice, and how colleges and universities can best provide the focused, specialised training needed by today’s transport industry.
We are not starting from a blank slate. Before Crossrail was built, we faced shortages in tunnelling and underground construction skills. Too much training was being delivered informally, and was often non-accredited. We also knew that there was no soft-ground tunnel training facility in the whole of Europe.
Knowing all this, we built our own specialist tunnelling academy, to provide the skilled engineers, surveyors and construction workers needed to get Crossrail finished, which I visited as Skills Minister in 2012. Since 2011, over 17,000 courses have been completed at the academy. Crossrail is nearing completion, on time and on budget. The academy is now supporting Transport for London’s latest tunnelling projects. We have since established similar colleges for HS2 and our road investment programmes.
Because we can’t build a new college for every project, in the coming months I will be working with the Education Advisory Group to explore how our existing institutions can help too.
It will take vision and commitment, but it will be worthwhile. On the very first page of his Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith declared that a nation’s prosperity is determined by one factor above all: “the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which its labour is generally applied.”
The task I have set our education and training providers is to increase the skill, dexterity and judgement of the whole transport workforce.
As we get it right, we will see a new generation of transport professionals embark upon exciting careers, see new transport built on time and budget, and we will get around more easily. Everyone benefits.