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Investing in essential skills

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Lockdown and social distancing have forced companies to work in new and different ways, favouring those with skilled, versatile and adaptable workforces.

The current Coronavirus epidemic has challenged all businesses across the UK in a way that none can have expected or predicted. Some have carried on trading, while others have almost completely shut down. How well they come out of this situation, how strong or weakened they will be, depends largely on management skill and how their workforces have adapted to life during and after Covid.

Rail is an interesting mix. Trains are still running and infrastructure work is still taking place, so front-line staff have continued to work, albeit with social distancing and other restrictions in place.

Those managing these operations are largely working from home, connected to both their own staff and suppliers/clients via telephone, email, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Slack and various other digital methods most had never even heard of before the lockdown started.

In addition, a number of people are furloughed – barred from the office and their emails until called back to work. This not only affects them, it also affects their colleagues who are still working, as they are not there to contribute ideas and knowledge.

This is when having a skilled workforce really counts. It’s those human skills, and the ability to be able to stay positive, focused and recognise and support others, that really makes the difference. Employers that have taken steps to make their staff as skilled as possible, able to react quickly to challenges and changing conditions, are now reaping the benefits of that forward planning.

A high-speed example

Despite the lockdown, major construction works are still taking place at over 80 per cent of HS2’s work sites between Birmingham and London, while office-based staff are supported in working from home as the company adapts the way it engages with external partners and the community to hold meetings and events virtually instead of in person.

HS2 launched its Skills, Employment and Education Strategy in 2018. It offers a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity to upskill the nation and ensure that people who live local to the route, and those from disadvantaged and under-represented groups, are given the opportunity to play their part in delivering this huge feat in British engineering. The ambitions were high, but they are fast turning to reality.

The ‘Skills Builder’ model helped HS2 to embed an essential skills approach across its education and future talent programmes, believing that there are clear benefits to widening its use across the organisation. Focusing on the importance of essential skills can really help to build a resilient workforce and being better equipped to adapt to the ‘new normal’ will be increasingly important in the months ahead.

Major construction of the first phase of Britain’s new railway, between London and Birmingham, is happening and HS2’s drive to leave a lasting skills legacy is rapidly taking shape. At its peak, construction will support 30,000 jobs and 2,000 apprenticeships. But, with an ageing workforce in rail engineering and a significant underrepresentation of women and BAME workers in the UK’s construction sector, it takes a project the size and scale of HS2 to start redressing those balances.

Start them off early

With so much ground to cover, and a project that is likely to continue for the next ten years or more, HS2’s commitment to the skills agenda has had to be long-term, so its work begins in primary and secondary schools. Over 15,000 pupils have already taken part in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) workshops, which are designed to inspire the next generation to think about what’s possible.

Through curriculum-based activities, which support the STEM agenda, pupils are encouraged to work together to succeed using essential skills like creativity, problem solving and teamwork. For primary students, each pupil’s use of essential skills is rewarded, as they collect badges and certificates for the engineering and construction-focused tasks they successfully complete using a different essential skill.

Kate Myers, head of skills, education and employment at HS2, explained: “Harnessing the use of essential skills really helps to inspire young people and support their development. We work with pupils at local schools along the HS2 route to understand the link between the essential skills they are developing and how this links to future careers they may not have thought about before on major projects like HS2.

“Continuing that engagement with young people, through our work experience programmes, mentoring schemes, apprenticeships and attendance at job fairs and careers events up and down the country, helps us to keep that inspiration alive and support young people into meaningful career pathways to work on HS2, where we continue to invest in their essential skills.”

Apprentices and graduates

Recognised essential-skills models are embedded into all stages of learning, development and future talent programmes at HS2. This encompasses everything from two-year apprenticeship and graduate programmes to working with recognised charities such as the Social Mobility Foundation, with HS2 employees actively supporting high-attaining pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds to develop the essential skills needed for higher education and progression into professional careers.

Over 350 apprentices have already worked on the HS2 programme, and recruitment is underway for more apprentices and graduates to start later this year. The importance of investing in young people, bringing them into the business at an early stage of their career and continuing to invest in their essential skills, is both recognised and valued. And as young people will be amongst those most adversely impacted by Covid-19 across education and employment, the ability to continue creating new opportunities for years to come is really important.

Without doubt, due to the months that the economy, business and education will have been locked down due to Covid-19, delivering HS2 is now more important than ever. The drive to rebuild the UK economy and divert much needed investment and growth into towns and cities in the Midlands and the North will never be greater. And with construction works ramping up and our workforce demands increasing, HS2 stands to play a pivotal role in helping to secure Britain’s economic recovery after Covid-19.

The main works construction contracts, totalling £12 billion, have now been awarded and the ripple effects of that investment are starting to reach down to second and third tier contractors and companies across the UK.

As HS2’s influence extends out to thousands of UK businesses through its supply chain, the ability to continue making a difference grows. Contracts are worded so as to place skills, employment and education requirements on all successful contractors, not only helping to create and secure jobs, but to ensure the companies behind the contract awards invest in upskilling their workforce, embedding the essential skills framework and delivering community-focused education and employment initiatives to support others.

It’s this circle of activity which will ensure that HS2 leaves a lasting skills legacy and creates new opportunities for future generations.