The 'Train Drain'

Donald Trump’s planned infrastructure projects are said to run to $1 trillion as he plans to build, build, build to revive the country’s flagging road and rail network and revive the US economy. So should Britain be following his lead? And do we have the manpower and skills to embark on such a mission?

A few months ago US President Donald Trump vowed to push a $1 trillion infrastructure bill through Congress, in a drive that would make good on a key campaign pledge.

Speaking back in February he said: “To launch our national rebuilding, I will be asking Congress to approve legislation that produces a $1 trillion investment in the infrastructure of the United States — financed through both public and private capital – creating millions of new jobs,” noting that his infrastructure campaign will be guided by his “Buy American and Hire American” principles.

And infrastructure is very much on the agenda in the UK as well. In December 2016 the government published details of its £500 billion-plus infrastructure investment pipeline, which outlines the UK’s major ‘shovel ready’ projects, including the Thames Tideway Tunnel, HS2, Crossrail, the rollout of smart meters, a multitude of flood defences and hundreds of other schemes.

The money comes from a mix of private and public investment, with more than 40% being delivered by the government. The announcement came hot on the heels of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement announcement of the new £23 billion National Productivity Investment Fund. This new fund includes infrastructure investments of over £2.6 billion to improve transport networks; a multi-million pound package to upgrade UK broadband connectivity and £7.2 billion to help build hundreds of thousands of much needed new homes.

So the plans are there. But what about the people who will deliver them?

Despite the media-hyped economic uncertainty surrounding Brexit, the engineering profession across the civil, mechanical and electrical sectors of infrastructure and the built environment is thriving. While this of course is an excellent situation to find ourselves in, on the flip side is the fact that the sector’s success is throwing into the spotlight a rather fundamental problem: a lack of home-grown talent.

Like many other sectors (the NHS in particular) the engineering sector is experiencing a skills shortage thanks to an historical lack of vocational training and apprenticeships. This news of course is nothing new, for years we’ve all been aware of the growing skills gap in the UK and the lack of young people coming into our core industries with the relevant skills, knowledge and experience to replace highly skilled retirees, or fulfil the requirements of new niche roles. However, until only recently there appears to have been very little government appetite to tackle the problem, or even the shell of an idea of how to go about achieving it.

However, with hundreds of billions of pounds of infrastructure projects now scheduled to be delivered, the UK government seems to be cottoning on to the problem, with the introduction of a number of new measures including its controversial new apprenticeship levy, an integral part of its ambition to train three million new apprentices by 2020 – and to address the decreased focus on training outside the work place.

Combine this with the introduction of so called T-levels, the technical version of A-levels, which were announced in the March budget by Chancellor Philip Hammond, and you can see a determination to at least attempt to close the skills gap, as well as ensuring the UK economy is “match fit” for Brexit.

The introduction of T-levels (or Tech Levels) will see the UKs technical education system overhauled to deliver more skills focused training for students who may wish to become an engineer or builder for example. Currently students have to pick from 13,000 different qualifications, which will be replaced with just 15 standalone courses, with titles including engineering and manufacturing, business and administration, catering and hospitality, construction and social care.

Of course should the Conservatives not win the General Election in June such changes are unlikely to happen, with Labour and the Lib Dems having their own ideas about how to close the skills gap – a phenomenon which none of the major parties deny exists.

The cross party agreement on the matter is largely down to a number of wide ranging business surveys conducted in recent years which concluded that the lack of availability of suitably skilled workers, both at school-leaver level and for key positions, remains the biggest concern for firms, across many sectors, but principally in industry.

Arcadis research published in February 2017 (report here) demonstrated that the industry needs to recruit over 400,000 people every year between now and 2021 – equivalent to one worker every 77 seconds – to cope with predicted workloads.

Major trade needs include carpenters, joiners, plumbers, electricians and bricklayers. The report also identifies a need for over 7,400 civil engineers, 7,300 quantity surveyors and 26,400 construction directors.

So when it comes to successfully progressing the UKs ambitious £500 billion infrastructure plans it will all come back to plugging the skills gap, or ‘gulf’ as it has been labelled in some quarters. Can the policies of the UK government overcome the problem to create an environment where young people are willing and able to explore and flourish in key technical trades, or will the job markets continue their current movement in the direction of increased levels of automation and the rise and rise of the gig economy? Time will tell.