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A plan for taking British infrastructure to the next level

Time to close the skills gap—and increase diversity

By John O’Connor  

This article was produced in association with Laing O’Rourke

It is an exciting time for construction and engineering in the UK. The Government is firmly behind infrastructure and the pipeline of potential projects that call out for complex engineering could truly transform the industry’s outlook. Everyone is in agreement: the improvement of UK infrastructure is vital in boosting productivity and securing economic growth.

However, we are facing an increasingly severe shortage of skilled personnel. With so much at stake, Laing O’Rourke has stepped forward with a plan of practical, deliverable recommendations to close the skills gap for construction and infrastructure.

Laing O’Rourke is the UK’s largest privately owned construction firm. We have engineered, manufactured and constructed some of the UK’s most iconic architecture, including the Francis Crick Institute, Crossrail, Heathrow Terminal 5, and the Leadenhall “Cheesegrater” building in the City of London.

Our vertically integrated, direct employment model offers our employees security and transparency; our use of the most technologically advanced building techniques means opportunities to work on projects of national importance, and the variety of pathways into the business means that anyone from school leaver to senior hire can apply. However, similar to many construction and infrastructure firms, we have continuing challenges in resourcing the right skills to deliver our future ambitions. In this regard, prevailing stereotypes of the sector and limited educational options are holding people back from pursuing rewarding careers in construction, manufacturing and engineering.

There are some hugely exciting projects in the Government’s own pipeline: HS2, Hinkley Point C, airport expansions and a million more homes by 2020. The National Infrastructure Commission has been set up, led by Andrew Adonis, a respected figure in the industry, and we are assured by the new Prime Minister that infrastructure remains top of the agenda. However, the Government also needs to consider putting in place the educational structures and processes that will deliver the sheer volume of construction and infrastructure personnel required to deliver this planned portfolio of exciting projects.

We know from the plethora of research in this area that the scale of this issue grows more acute every year: according to Infrastructure UK, the UK requires 250,000 new jobs in construction and over 150,000 engineering construction personnel by 2020—just to keep pace with anticipated demand. We also know that our industry is found equally wanting in tackling the emerging crisis, most specifically in the challenge to attract a diverse talent pool. In 2016 it is estimated that only nine per cent of engineers in the UK are female—the lowest proportion in Europe—and only three per cent of those in the sector are from an ethnic minority.

This year Laing O’Rourke set about analysing these issues. Our short plan to meet the skills challenge is a solutions based approach that offers practical recommendations to inform government, our industry partners and educational and training providers on how we can collectively improve our performance.

On a fundamental level, we urge the government to put in place the departmental infrastructure and capacity to speed up approval on the new apprenticeships sought by the sector. In addition, we want the Department for Education to offer GCSEs and A-levels in design, engineering and construction and we encourage the government to incentivise more universities to offer technical part-time degrees for construction, manufacturing and engineering. We also call on the government to provide teachers and schools with improved support and the resources they require to advise pupils and students on their broad range of future career options in the sectors.

Our plan also targets local government. As planning powers become increasingly devolved, local authorities have a clear interest in boosting their own local supply of skills. To achieve this, effort must be made to analyse and match central government planning and local need to the training on offer to local resources. For too long training courses have not been tailored to regional necessity or opportunity; leading to an imbalance in local skills, with implications for the local economy.

In addressing the industry, our plan rightly identifies the construction and infrastructure sector as the vital link between educational and training providers, who must open up their institutions and academic preferences to vocational subjects and the skills of the future, and the government, which must become more focussed and efficient. We have a responsibility to overcome the skills gap by positively engaging and proactively collaborating with these groups and with each other. Most importantly, we as an industry need to commit to making measurable improvements in diversity by determinedly speaking and communicating with candidates, assuring fair, equal and inclusive workplaces.

There are huge gains to be made in the construction and infrastructure sector: a “win win” for government, industry and educational and training providers. It is time we focussed on what we want to achieve in the UK, and collectively produce an efficient and targeted system to match our ambitions and deliver opportunity to aspirational people throughout the UK. We intend our plan to be an essential guide in achieving this task, and we look forward to discussing its merits at its launch.

With the support of Laing O’Rourke, Prospect hosted a private roundtable discussion at the 2016 Conservative Party Conference on how an industrial strategy can help address the UK’s skills gap. The discussion was chaired by Jon Bernstein, Associate Editor for Prospect. Speakers included: John O’Connor, Group Director for Human Capital, Laing O’Rourke; Lord David Willetts, Executive Chair, Resolution Foundation; Paul Jackson , Chief Executive, Engineering UK; Dr Jon Lamonte, Chief Executive, Transport for Greater Manchester; Andrew Crudgington, Director of External Affairs & Strategy, Institution of Civil Engineers; Peter Finegold, Head of Education and Skills, IMeche; and Alexandra Jones, Chief Executive, Centre for Cities. 

For speaker and partnership opportunities, please contact david.tl@prospect-magazine.co.uk

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