It is a well-documented, industry-wide issue and if it’s not tackled, the ramifications could be huge.
The engineering and higher-level skills gap needs no introduction. At the National College for High Speed Rail (NCHSR), technical recruitment agency Morson held a roundtable discussion with HS2 contractors to look at the challenges surrounding apprenticeships and training and the opportunities to learn from them.
Morson was joined by the likes of WSP, Mott MacDonald, BBV (Balfour Beatty Vinci), Bechtel, CEK (Carillion, Eiffage and Kier JV) and HS2 as well as representatives from organisations such as the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce and NCHSR.
Keynote speaker Neil Robertson, chief executive of the National Skills Academy for Rail, outlined the challenges specifically for HS2. He said that, while there will be peaks and troughs for labour demand, the engineering skills that are needed during the latter stages of construction are not currently in the market.
Rail has historically been focused on Level 2 and 3 qualifications but it needs to take on more with Level 4 and 5 qualifications, according to Neil.
Brexit, Neil added, will make the situation even more difficult, with estimates putting the amount lost at up to 10 per cent of the construction sector’s workforce.
To encourage the supply chain to step up, HS2 has set skills, employment and education (SEE) outcomes for all of its relevant procurement.
This includes hiring the unemployed, graduates, supporting apprenticeships and NCHSR, offering short-term work placements and rolling out school education programmes.
Although these outcomes differ from contractor to contractor, the professional services sector has struggled to place unemployed jobseekers because of the nature of their work. However, they have had great success with their apprenticeship programme – one of which had a higher retention rate than the graduate scheme.
“I think to address the skills gap, it had to be done,” said Morson operations director Adrian Adair, talking about HS2’s high SEE benchmarks.
“The only way you will meet the skills gap is if you are reaching into new areas such as people that are in a workless situation and by creating apprenticeships that wouldn’t have been created before – that all needed to be done.
“HS2 has come out and said ‘here’s the benchmark, here’s what you need to do.’”
Prompted by Neil Robertson, there was widespread agreement that to meet the skills gap, targeting the socially disadvantaged and diversifying the workforce must move from a ‘nice to do’ to a must do.
Challenging parents’ perceptions of apprenticeships – such as unhelpful views that they are second best to degrees – and perceptions of engineering, have helped to remove barriers and make the workplace more inclusive.
Targeting schools more effectively and earlier on was a keen strand of debate to changing perceptions of engineering from an earlier age. Delegates noted how long-term schemes such as mentoring should be favoured over box-ticking exercises such as presentations.
Social media campaigns and making use of alumnus networks were other strategies that had proved effective. ‘Gamification’ was discussed as an alternative tool for targeting youngsters.
Nevertheless, youngsters shouldn’t be the only demographic that the industry sets its sights on. Career development and career changers have a part to play to help bridge the skills gap.
Last year, the apprenticeship levy was introduced but there has been some confusion and underuse of the available funds. However, awareness needs to be raised that this pot of money can be used for upskilling and, from April this year, can be transferred into the supply chain to better address specific skills shortages.
A stark warning
Summarising the findings, Adrian Adair gave a stark warning to the room, stating that if the industry doesn’t tackle the skills gap, it will put the country’s major infrastructure projects in jeopardy.
Read more: TfL on the lookout for 180 new apprentices