Every time I walk into work, I notice Birmingham is in the midst of a renaissance. Not a month goes by without a new commercial building opening or another construction project breaking ground.
In 2017, the project to build the UK’s first intercity high-speed railway was at the centre of this flourishing England’s second city. Work to build the new HS2 Curzon Street station got underway in Birmingham city centre in November, with enabling works to clear the ground, the start of archaeological digs as well as utilities surveys.
Meanwhile newly opened office buildings have filled up with hundreds of staff who are delivering these enabling works. They work at joint ventures like Fusion (Morgan Sindall, BAM Nuttall and Ferrovial Agroman) and the LMJV (Laing O’Rourke and J Murphy & Sons). They are already being followed by the organisations responsible for the civil engineering and construction contracts: CEK JV (Carillion, Eiffage and Kier) and BBV JV (Balfour Beatty and Vinci).
In total, 25,000 people will be employed to build HS2, including at least 2,000 apprentices. HS2’s apprentices aren’t only young people taking their first steps in the working world or switching industries with HS2; they are also existing railway, construction or engineering workers who are taking this opportunity to upskill and get to grips with the technology that makes high-speed rail travel possible.
Once operational, a further 3,000 people will be required to work full-time to run, maintain and operate the high-speed railway. Some of these jobs will be in traditional engineering, manufacturing and construction roles; while others will be in newer disciplines, including data science, computer-based design and Building Information Modelling (BIM).
These numbers are not to be sniffed at. HS2 offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to grow the UK’s railway and construction skills base and get more people into these industries by attracting experienced and enthusiastic talent from other sectors. HS2 will also help develop the higher technical skills required in the existing rail and engineering workforces in order to build this new railway and upgrade the wider UK transport network.
Current forecasts show that an additional 186,000 engineers will be needed every year until 2024 to fill all the engineering roles required by the UK’s pipeline of infrastructure projects. More than 100,000 of these will be needed to fulfil advanced and higher technician or supervisor jobs at “advanced” Level 4. Today, fewer than one in four are qualified at higher or advanced technician level.
Alongside Highways England, Network Rail, Crossrail, Transport for London and the Trades Union Congress (TUC), HS2 is part of the Strategic Transport Apprenticeship Taskforce (STAT), established in April 2016 to deliver on the ambition of the Transport Infrastructure Skills Strategy: to create more apprenticeships; improve diversity and promote transport as a career.
To make the UK’s infrastructure project pipeline a reality, we need to expand and upskill the entire talent pool in the construction, engineering and transport industries. This includes attracting and retaining diverse and previously under-represented people, including women and black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups. We are reaching out to attract the widest possible pool of aptitude, helping train a workforce that not only supports our delivery of this project, but one which will also help cultivate the country’s other major infrastructure projects, as well as being able to one day export their skills abroad.
The first crop is evidence of the progress that is already being made. HS2’s first 25 apprentices started working with us in September. In the rail industry, 13 per cent of employees are women, while only 6 per cent come from BAME backgrounds. Forty-four per cent of HS2’s apprentices are female and 36 per cent are BAME. Ninety-two per cent of them are under the age of 30, which is essential to replacing an existing workforce which is overwhelmingly within sight of the retirement paddock.
All of HS2’s apprentices are spending time training at the National College for High Speed Rail (NCHSR). This new institution is dedicated to creating and retaining the highly skilled and diverse workforce which will lead the UK’s emerging high-speed rail industry. Built on state-of-the-art campuses in Birmingham and Doncaster, all learning materials, equipment, staff and the curriculum have been developed with – or supplied by – employers, including HS2, giving the college’s attendees a direct link to industry and ensuring they are gaining the specific skills needed to be able to start work straight after graduation.
The college provides students with the technical skills required to build HS2. It also offers new pathways to people starting a career in transport infrastructure, while training the existing workforce. Initially, an intake of industry apprentices will specialise in either civil engineering (at Birmingham), track systems (at Doncaster) or systems engineering (available at both sites). From the start of the 2018 academic year, apprenticeship options in power, rolling stock and command, control and communications (CCC) will be added, as well as a Level 5 management apprenticeship and a Level 4 higher national certificate equivalent.
I feel an immense sense of pride as I walk into work and survey Birmingham’s transformation. HS2 is committed to encouraging young people to become interested in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects that lay the groundwork for careers developing the UK’s cities and the infrastructure which connects them. We deliver 60 STEM inspiration days every year, attended by an average of 3,000 students between the ages of 11 and 14, more than half of whom are girls, like me.
If the railway and engineering industries are to look forward to the kind of growth and prosperity Birmingham has in store, it will be the long-term, strategic and pride-inducing infrastructure projects that not only plant the seeds but also nurture them through to maturity so we can all reap the benefits for generations to come.
Written by Kate Myers, head of skills and employment, HS2 Ltd
Photos courtesy of HS2 Ltd