The Paul Jackson blogIt would be a disaster if a shortage of skills negatively affected the delivery of priority infrastructure projects, says the chief executive of Engineering UK

I welcomed the chancellor’s recent announcement of a National Infrastructure Commission under the leadership of Lord Adonis, “taking the politics out of infrastructure planning” and ensuring a long-term strategic approach to delivering the UK’s infrastructure. The chancellor’s announcement of a £5bn infrastructure investment is not to be sniffed at, but, if Lord Adonis and the commission are to deliver on their promise, we need the skills to deliver priority infrastructure projects.

George Osborne said it would be a disaster if inertia were to stop us pushing forward with infrastructure projects. I say it would be a disaster if a lack of skills were to have the same result.

As a country we are great at engineering and we should be proud of our ability to deliver impressive projects such as the redevelopment of Birmingham New Street station. That project created 3,000 new construction jobs and the high-impact projects that this new commission will review will draw on a limited pool of workers with the right skills, at the right level.

new street
The redesign of Birmingham's previously dark and depressing New Street Station is an example of a successful infrastructure project, but there are many more which need addressing.

Take the rail network, which has seen passenger journeys grow by 50 per cent in the past decade. What the network delivers is pretty impressive given that rise in volume but with projections of a doubling of freight and passenger traffic by 2030, we need a greater and more skilled workforce. The majority of construction workers have level 2 skills, yet often more advanced skills are required. For example, at HS2, 50 per cent of the construction jobs are at level 3 (equivalent to A level/advanced apprenticeship).

More than 85,000 people are currently employed in the rail industry but to deliver what is currently planned on the network for the next five years it requires almost 10,000 more, which the talent pipeline will struggle to produce. If the commission pushes through projects such as ones to improve connections between northern cities, this demand is likely to rise.

”George Osborne said it would be a disaster if inertia were to stop us pushing forward with infrastructure projects. I say it would be a disaster if a lack of skills were to have the same result

This problem is further compounded by the fact that 40 per cent of the rail workforce is over 45, meaning retirement is a major influencing factor in the industry’s skills landscape. For each new technician recruited, 2.4 technicians are lost to retirement; and for every three engineers that retire only two are recruited.

One potential solution, of course, lies in delayed retirement, which could mean the retention of up to 180,000 skilled workers.

With skills in such high demand across the board, the rail sector has some rather stiff competition, including from nuclear with its £48bn investment, the automotive industry, which employs more than 700,000 people and 3,000 aerospace companies. Given the promise of a decision on airport expansion by the end of the year we may well see further demand from that front sooner rather than later.

Demand already outstrips supply in engineering and as an industry we have a responsibility to boost the supply of skilled workers, to bring new blood into the industry. I am pleased to say that, among others, Crossrail and Network Rail are committed to the Tomorrow’s Engineers programme.

However, infrastructure isn’t just about rail, and engineering isn’t just about infrastructure. We need all sectors to help inspire the next generation of engineers.