A wider range of construction career paths is available now than ever before – but we need to do more to promote them, says Bob Hide
For major infrastructure projects to play their full part in fuelling the UK economy’s post-covid recovery, a greater focus on infrastructure-specific skills is required.
While initiatives such as the Lifetime Skills Guarantee will go some way towards developing new talent within the traditional construction trades, we need a plan of action for nurturing the mega-project teams of the future.
Published in November 2020, the National Infrastructure Strategy sets out the government’s long-term vision on how to upgrade the economic infrastructure and the key role that its £27bn investment (for 2021-22) will play in the UK’s post-pandemic recovery.
With many areas of the construction industry experiencing significant skills gaps, however – in particular across infrastructure-focused support services – the government needs to do more to promote a wider range of career paths and develop a pipeline of skilled and experienced workers.
Infrastructure project delivery faces a lack of emerging talent in roles such as machine operators, site engineers and foremen, as well as relevant support services
The Lifetime Skills Guarantee, announced in September 2020, was a positive development for UK construction, aiming to provide more people with employment opportunities through access to free level 3 qualifications, while helping employers to secure the skilled workforce they need. This initiative is funded by the £27bn National Skills Fund, announced in November 2020.
However, the Lifetime Skills Guarantee will do little to support the supply of much-needed mega-project skills. As well as urgently requiring competent civil engineers, infrastructure project delivery faces a lack of emerging talent in roles such as machine operators, site engineers and foremen, as well as relevant support services, such as project managers, planning and risk management specialists.
Without taking efforts to promote these disciplines as viable and attractive career paths, the industry will be approaching a skills cliff-edge.
One of the key challenges facing UK infrastructure will be the bringing through of a new generation of workers with mega-project experience as existing managers and specialists approach retirement. The sector’s heavy reliance on specialists means that it has a rapidly ageing skilled specialist workforce and, in 10-15 years, a large proportion of the current skills-base will have left the industry.
The government must create more initiatives like the Lifetime Skills Guarantee, and work harder with industry to promote infrastructure-related career choices
So the timescales of many mega-projects present a unique opportunity as a pipeline for the project teams of the future. Junior members of the industry have a chance to hone their skills and experience over the course of major complex infrastructure projects, emerging ready for the next tranche of infrastructure projects.
In order to ensure that the industry develops the varied workforce it needs, the government must create more initiatives like the Lifetime Skills Guarantee, and work harder with industry to promote infrastructure-related career choices.
So that vital specialist project management support disciplines – such as risk management and construction planning – do not fall by the wayside, more needs to be done to improve the visibility of these vital roles and ensure that they look attractive to those currently involved in project delivery and to the potential recruits who are so essential for the industry’s future.
While many people still associate construction careers with ”getting your hands dirty” and the pursuit of trade qualifications, other roles such as project planning, digital, finance and commercial management are still relatively unknown. So we need a shake-up to bring a wider range of construction roles into the spotlight.
As well as providing highly rewarding career paths, the rise of technological innovations such as 3D modelling/BIM and virtual reality could also be better leveraged to raise the profile of the allied digital skills that are now a requirement of major infrastructure projects.
The delivery of much-needed infrastructure should play a vital role in boosting the UK’s economic recovery
While the pandemic has provided a reminder of the need to pay attention to low-probability, high-impact risks, investment in mitigation activities for a range of risks at an early stage in a project is critical if mega-projects are to deliver value for money.
As well as ensuring that a range of risks – including the prospect of skills shortages – are considered and communicated clearly to stakeholders at the launch phase, project managers should be aware of the industry’s tendency to be overly optimistic when considering such risks. This can lead to projects overshooting their time and cost estimates.
The delivery of much-needed infrastructure should play a vital role in boosting the UK’s economic recovery, but the efficient and profitable delivery of mega-projects in the future will not be possible without a cohort of specialists well versed in how to manage such projects and support their delivery. By prioritising the development of infrastructure-specific skills, the UK will stand a far better chance of “building back better” and returning to full financial health.
Bob Hide is managing director at risk management consultancy Equib, which specialises in advising teams involved in the delivery of major-scale infrastructure programmes