With the government announcement of the £15 billion Road Investment Strategy in December 2014, the demand for skilled engineers across the UK is growing at a rapid pace. It is estimated that 6,200 additional jobs will be created as a result, with a large proportion expected to be engineering based including Highway Engineers, Design Engineers, Project Managers, Contract Managers and Construction Managers. This is of course great news for the industry, however it does pose an important question; does the UK have the skills to deliver £15bn worth of projects across the next 10 years?
In the most recent Matchtech Confidence Index, a survey of over 3,500 engineers across the UK, 90 per cent of engineers in the highways industry agreed that the skills gap existed and that the ageing workforce was the industry’s greatest challenge. With a large proportion of the current workforce nearing retirement this skills challenge is very real. Whilst the skills gap is unlikely to close completely, there are a number of short and long-term solutions that employers in the industry can adopt to ensure we have enough people power to deliver these projects over the next 10 years.
Taking advantage of transferable skills
Notwithstanding the general turnover of staff and engineers nearing their retirement, employers within the highways industry will need to widen their search for skilled engineers if they are to meet employment targets. Transferable skills within Project Management and Design for example should be taken advantage of, not ignored. Engineering is one of the toughest industries to recruit for; the benefits of transferable skills should not be overlooked. This is where specialist engineering recruiters can offer value, giving employers visibility of candidates across sectors, offering them access to previously untouched talent pools.
Enhancing the education experience
With engineering students spending up to four years at university studying theory, arguably more needs to be done long-term to create more hands-on, experienced engineers. Focusing on training and work experience as well as theory during education can help young engineers gain experience throughout their education, so when qualified they are more desirable to employers and ready to join the industry.
Of course, there is already work being carried out to improve the quality, relevance and amount of educational opportunities within engineering disciplines. The Government is investing in apprenticeships, universities are offering a range of courses and employers within industry are offering graduate placements but it will take some time before these young engineers filter through and help replenish the stocks of engineers that the highways industry needs.
Retaining existing engineers
The industry must also seek to retain the valuable talent it already has. Bringing together adult apprenticeship schemes for those already working in highways, such as experienced highway operatives, and those who want to join it but who lack the accredited engineering skills could boost the talent pipeline and allow the promotion of more experienced staff into more senior roles.
With the first Road Investment Strategy now underway and the second planned for implementation in 2020, the highways sector must move forward by widening the search for talent by considering transferable skills, encouraging hands-on training for engineers in higher education and looking at opportunities to up-skill people already working in the industry. There is no miracle solution to the skills shortage, but universities, businesses and the government must work together to ensure there are enough highway engineers fully trained and available to complete these ambitious and innovative projects.
Joe Wilson, Department Manager – Highways, Transportation & Planning, Matchtech
Joe Wilson – Department Manager – Highways, Transportation & Planning, Matchtech