Viewpoint: Redefining engineering and apprenticeships to boost infrastructure

An integrated approach to planning is essential to ensure that the UK develops a skilled workforce to deliver its ambitious slate of infrastructure projects, argues Richard Robinson

Over the past few years much-needed momentum for infrastructure has gathered pace, with investment plans on a Victorian scale now taking shape. However, given the UK’s ambitious pipeline of infrastructure projects, a key issue for industry this year will be to continue to build capacity so there will be enough skilled professionals to deliver the multitude of schemes when they ramp up in 2018.

The Tunnelling and Underground Construction Academy provides specialist training useful for Crossrail 2 and other underground schemes

There are a range of major schemes in the UK National Infrastructure pipeline including Highways England and Transport for London projects, as well as HS2, Crossrail 2 and Thames Tideway in London. These will require an army of skilled engineering and construction professionals if the schemes are to be delivered against their current schedules. A better understanding of potential capacity gaps across the UK supply chain will be crucial to addressing resource requirements.

Vital projects are likely to apply pressure across the sector for years to come, so government and industry must work together to develop the necessary skills. The National Infrastructure Plan for Skills goes some way towards mapping expertise against pipeline projects, informing companies’ recruitment strategies and identifying the gaps that must be addressed. But many of the proposed infrastructure projects are likely to draw on similar areas of the supply chain so this future skills gap must be recognised and planned for. An integrated approach to planning across all sectors involved in the UK’s pipeline of major infrastructure programmes is surely needed.

Attracting talent through a variety of different routes will be key to building capacity for 2018. Take apprenticeships. The apprentices hired this year will have the ability to play a meaningful role on projects in two or three years’ time – precisely when they will be needed most. Recognising this, AECOM has increased apprenticeship recruitment and will be ramping up its hiring of apprentices next year. Our apprenticeship development programme will include training for specialist skills that we know will be needed to deliver future projects. We have already worked closely with the Technician Apprenticeship Consortium (TAC) for example, to develop new apprenticeship programmes for certain in-demand transportation disciplines, such as transport planning and rail.

Parts of the industry are also taking steps to address specific resource gaps. The Tunnelling and Underground Construction Academy (TUCA) provides specialist training in the necessary tunnel excavation and underground construction skills to work on Crossrail and other schemes. In anticipation of the need for more high speed rail skills, a new National College for High Speed Rail opened in Birmingham this year. These types of initiatives are an effective way to facilitate collaboration between the public sector, businesses and their supply chains to increase the availability of key skills.

But for industry to create the necessary levels of apprenticeships, the definition of an apprentice will most likely need to be broadened. Apprenticeships should not always be targeted at school leavers as an alternative to higher education. Experienced-based learning is vital across all levels and encouraging mid-career changers and returners to consider the apprenticeship route is also key. With a rise of new digital technologies, industry is going to require a different mix of skills in the future so attracting and training the right talent from outside the industry is critical.

It is of course also important that our industry is able to capture the imagination of young people. Stereotypes about a career in engineering or construction are still rife, but the reality is very different. Young people need to hear about the exciting, intellectually challenging work engineers do to build a better world, from designing sustainable transport and energy infrastructure to protecting people from floods or planning cities of the future. Perhaps the biggest challenge to building capacity is changing the perception of what an engineer does.

Richard Robinson is chief executive for civil infrastructure (Europe, Middle East, Africa, India) for infrastructure engineering specialist AECOM.