The most recent Budget seemed to confirm the government’s committment to spending more on roads. With major changes to the Highways Agency on the horizon, what skills will be needed to complete the pipeline of work on offer?
Chancellor George Osborne and his Liberal Democrat deputy Danny Alexander have long argued they are looking to boost economic growth through infrastructure spending.
There have been doubts: the National Infrastructure Plan of 40 major projects, from the £42.6bn High Speed 2 railway to the six-lane Mersey Gateway toll bridge connecting Runcorn and Widnes, has been derided in some quarters as a ‘list’ rather than a well-organised programme.
But the latest Autumn Statement showed the coalition is serious when it comes to improving Britain’s motorways and trunk roads.
More than 80 projects, valued at more than £15bn, were outlined, including a commitment to building a tunnel under Stonehenge as part of the £2bn revamp of the A303 and £1.5bn of schemes in the East of England that will create 1,000 jobs.
The Highways Agency has arguably become the UK’s busiest client.
Capital spending of £1.7bn a year will reach £4bn by 2020/21, while the HA has been granted greater freedoms – and therefore responsibilities – than ever before as it moves from being effectively an arm of government to a company in its own right.
The developments are a boon to a construction industry that has toiled so badly through the years of the downturn.
The Construction Products Association recently forecast that road construction will grow by 46.1 per cent to 2018.
But major players will find they are chasing similar staff to employers in sectors such as energy infrastructure, itself tipped to grow by nearly 120 per cent over the next three years.
As a spokesman for CH2M Hill, which was one of 26 companies appointed to a £5bn highways framework in November, puts it: “The skills shortage is a challenge that faces the entire engineering and construction sector, especially in the delivery of major projects and upgrade programmes.”
The spokesman adds that the lack of students dedicated to the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and maths remains a problem.
Also, there must be incentives to encourage workers to move from existing work in lucrative areas such as housing and rail.
“Many of the skills required on these major projects are transferable and greater effort should be made establishing development programmes that provide a clear path for more people to step into the sector,” he says.
Carillion highways director Duncan Elliott expects the group will need to grow its 300-strong white-collar staff dedicated to roads by about 40 to 50 per cent over the next three years.
While he acknowledges a “general shortage” of staff across the sector, his major concern is the more junior positions.
“There are lots of big numbers, big spend – we need that to be turned into what it actually means”
Duncan Elliott, Carillion
In terms of absolute numbers, finding a handful of extra project managers will be easier than tempting dozens of quantity surveyors or engineers who are at the early stages of their careers.
He also thinks the Highways Agency needs to devote time to spelling out when and how the programme will be managed.
“There are lots of big numbers, big spend; we need that to be turned into what it actually means… We’ve got to make some sense of this,” he says.
A different place
Certainly, the changes are a break from what one highways contractor describes as the “peaks and troughs” nature of the HA, particularly since 2008, when funding cuts forced consultants to “leave the sector and retrain in other industries”.
The agency’s major projects director Peter Adams agrees that the £15bn plan “takes us to a very different place”.
“Critically, this is a long-term commitment, we know we have funding to 2020/21.”
Knowing the funding is in place over several years means the HA can encourage suppliers to develop their roads businesses, Mr Adams says.
“We are not a Whitehall department, but a company with more than £100bn of assets”
Peter Adams, Highways Agency
He highlights the £3.5bn smart motorways programme, which will see contractors introduce top-notch technology to safely open up hard shoulders, as one such guarantee of years of work.
In the past there might have been large individual projects, but contractors could not be certain they would have more work shortly after the completion of those schemes if they had done a good job.
That is no longer the case, and Mr Adams believes contractors will now be keener to work alongside the HA in developing skills academies, knowing that course graduates will be of use to them in the future.
Referring to the change in the agency’s status, expected to be formally introduced in April, Mr Adams also hints at a flexibility that will appeal to contractors nervous over whether government promises will translate to work on the ground.
“We are not a Whitehall department, but a company with more than £100bn of assets,” he says.
That’s quite some client.