Right now, across the country, thousands of people are starting work on HS2. After years of talk, preparatory work for Europe’s largest infrastructure programme is underway ahead of construction beginning in 2019.
On 30 September, the Mayor of West Midlands Andy Street, the Secretary of State for Transport Chris Grayling and HS2 chair Terry Morgan marked the start of works at Laing O’Rourke’s project site for the future Curzon Street station.
Five days later, and more than 100 miles south, demolition of the former carriage sheds at Euston station was completed by a 70-strong team from the Costain-Skanska joint venture and Keltbray. The site is where the southern tunnel portal for the twin 13-mile-long tunnels will take trains out of London via a new station at Old Oak Common.
At 60 sites along the route, 2,300 businesses are currently conducting early enabling, professional service or design work, supporting more than 7,000 roles.
The seeds of HS2, sown so carefully since the idea was first explored back in 2009, are now starting to shoot.
Over the next few years, Phase One construction activity will intensify. Development of Phase One will eventually overlap work on Phases 2a and 2b – although HS2 does not yet have the legal powers to build these two.
By 2019/20, the number of men and women working on HS2 is estimated to more than double to 15,000. During peak construction in 2021/22, this figure will hit 30,000 with the annual forecast requirement only falling below 10,000 jobs once between 2018/19 and 2032/2033, which will pose its own problems for providing employment continuity.
Although the construction and rail engineering talent pool is being bolstered by a new generation of rail workers and through diversifying the workforce, not enough is being done.
HS2 minister Nusrat Ghani launched the megaproject’s Skills, Employment and Education Strategy in September at the Worksop headquarters of offsite manufacturing firm Explore Manufacturing. Nusrat described the plan as ambitious, and it needs to be to meet skill and labour demands.
At the time of the launch, HS2 CEO Mark Thurston said: “The reason we need a skills strategy is that we are not attracting enough people into our industry.
“We need to think about how we attract people from schools. How we work with our contractors to make sure they are bringing in young people, graduates and apprentices.
“That’s all part of us not just making sure we have the skills to deliver High Speed Two but actually when we are finished there is a whole legacy of skills and capability for the UK.”
HS2 is actively trying to meet these challenges. As well as supporting the National College for High Speed Rail and encouraging professional development, in all of its procurement activities, HS2 has embedded skills, employment and education requirements.
For example, supply chain partners must have a skills and employment manager as well as a skills, employment and education champion. They are also required to advertise vacancies through Job Centre Plus and a special Job Brokerage Service, largely focused on entry-level jobs, which is to be piloted from 2018/19.
Significantly, apprentices must count for four per cent of contractors’ workforces. Over the project’s lifetime, HS2 is targeting at least 2,000 apprentices but for newly appointed HS2 chair Sir Terry Morgan, who started his own career as an apprentice, this isn’t enough.
Speaking to a room of rail suppliers in October, Sir Terry said that Crossrail, the project he also chairs, had a target of 400 apprentices. However, the project has so far created 1,003 apprenticeships. For HS2, Sir Terry’s ambition is to see at least 5,000 apprentices supported by the programme.
HS2’s skills report identifies five roles in which it faces specific recruitment challenges during design and construction:
- Construction supervisors
- Plant operatives
- Civil engineers
- Signalling systems and telecommunications roles.
In response, businesses that have secured work are helping to develop the workforce needed to design and build HS2.
Flannery Plant Hire currently has 30 plant operatives involved in enabling works for Phase One and, in anticipation of a shortage in the future, is setting up a new trailblazer apprenticeship standard for plant operatives.
Apprenticeship standards show what an apprentice will be doing and the skills required of them, by job role.
A spokesman for Flannery Plant Hire said: “Flannery wanted to take a lead in the plant industry to develop an apprenticeship standard to support the current and planned shortage of plant operators in the UK.
“This shortage will only become more acute with the planned construction work in the coming years, and we believed this would be a positive way to address the shortages.”
The first phase of the apprenticeship standard has already received approval and Flannery expects it to be launched by the middle of 2019.
Elsewhere, specialist earthmoving contractor CA Blackwell, which estimates the creation of 500 new jobs from its HS2 work, plans to establish a plant operative training centre to support specialist skills development.
The good news is that rail is not alone in this skills challenge, all nationally significant infrastructure projects face similar problems and there is cross-industry collaboration to ensure the skills are in place for the transport infrastructure sector and wider economy.
HS2 is firm, however, that this is not about temporarily bridging a gap in skills and labour to get the project over the line. Sir Terry added: “This is a long-term programme and I don’t take any sh*t from companies that say ‘why bother to invest in apprenticeships when the programme will at some stage finish?’. That is so short-sighted.
“We have to invest in people, we have to maximise the opportunities this will bring.”