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Highways contractors continue to hire as output rises

Roads output is growing strongly once again having crashed during the downturn and recruitment and salaries are increasing to keep pace with demand

The recovery seems to be well under way among the larger highways contractors and engineers.

Mouchel, for example, has recruited 600 people over the past 12 months, many of whom have gone into its highways business, and is continuing to hire staff “for the foreseeable future” in its transport planning, highways design and intelligent transport teams.

At engineer Atkins, vacancies for permanent staff in highways and transportation have risen 150 per cent in 18 months and Lafarge Tarmac Contracting plans to take on 120 people by the end of Q1 2015.

Rising output

In one sense the rise in recruitment might seem surprising as funding for local authority highways maintenance has been falling, but the Highways Agency, which funds larger schemes, has received extra funding of £1.3bn between 2013/14 and 2014/15.

This boost means the Construction Products Association is predicting that roads construction output will be nearly 62 per cent higher in 2018 than in 2012.

But it points out that this is from a very low base; output in 2018 is still expected to be 17.5 per cent lower than in 2010 because of the constraints on council spending.

While the growth in Highways Agency projects is largely responsible for the increase in recruitment, some local authorities are carrying out work too.

“In the last few months there are several shire counties we work for that have been asking for more resource to deliver their programmes”

Andy Rowley, Lafarge Tarmac Contracting

Lafarge Tarmac Contracting commercial director Andy Rowley says: “In the last few months there are several shire counties we work for that have been asking for more resource to deliver their programmes.”

Skanska Infrastructure Services managing director Gregor Craig says additional capital funding for major projects, flood alleviation and city deals has helped to offset the pressure on budgets for local authority clients.

The company has seen the most regional growth in the South-west because of flood alleviation and Highways Agency work.

In addition, some companies are hiring for expanding overseas markets.

Mouchel’s business unit director for highways design and management (England & Wales) Stephen Russell says the firm has experienced growth in Australia and that the Middle East continues to be buoyant.

Range of roles

Many contractors and engineers say they are recruiting for a wide range of positions.

For example, Atkins interim managing director for highway and transportation David Jenkins says: “We have seen a general increase in demand for recruitment across all disciplines – mid- to senior-level design roles, project managers and project directors who can lead complex infrastructure schemes, asset management experts alongside senior consultants.”

“We operate in a fairly limited pool and we won’t get anywhere as an industry if we are all trying to recruit each other’s people”

Andy Rowley, Lafarge Tarmac Contracting

Most firms are recruiting both experienced staff as well as graduates and apprentices.

As Mr Rowley says: “We operate in a fairly limited pool and we won’t get anywhere as an industry if we are all trying to recruit each other’s people, so we have to bring in graduates and apprentices and new operatives to increase that pool.”

Lafarge Tarmac Contracting plans to take on 25 apprentices in 2015 and is hiring operatives for its surfacing gangs – it has 90 gangs around the country and wants to hire enough people for nine more – as well as staff such as estimators, contract managers, project managers, supervisors and quantity surveyors.

Specialist demand

There is also demand for some more specialist roles.

Mr Russell at Mouchel says: “Structures capacity is an industry issue given the amount of work coming through both the highways and rail environments.” He adds that the company also wants design engineers, consultants and project managers at all levels.

“Structures capacity is an industry issue given the amount of work coming through both the highways and rail environments”

Stephen Russell, Mouchel

Skills and qualifications needed for these jobs vary.

Many firms want to bring new people into the profession, particularly at graduate and apprentice level and also from other sectors in construction at other levels, so they are less concerned about experience of highways in these roles.

As for other roles, Mr Russell says Mouchel wants people with engineering degrees for its highways design teams and chartered status for experienced staff.

“For our project managers we adopt Association for Project Management training and look for relevant project management qualifications for those pursuing senior roles,” he says. 

Essential qualifications

Greg Lettington, director at recruitment company Hays Engineering, says engineering and technician roles need strong knowledge of CAD software; micro-drainage modelling software would be a requirement for an infrastructure drainage engineer role.

Highways-specific qualifications such as NVQs and those from the Chartered Institute for Highways and Transport are not essential but can help career development, he adds.

Skanska says operatives need a driving license for LGV with category C, or be able to pass a New Roads and Street Works operative accreditation and have a CSCS card. Operatives on the motorway also need Lantra 12A/12B traffic safety training.

Site agents need Institute of Occupational Safety and Health or Site Management Safety Training Scheme qualifications as well as a CSCS card, while health and safety staff need a minimum of the National Examination Board in Occupational Safety and Health general certificate.

Unsurprisingly contractors say the increased demand for staff is pushing up salaries.

Senior project managers and project directors might get between £25,000 and £65,000 depending on their experience, senior design staff might get up to £50,000, while graduates would start on around £18,000 to £25,000.

While the election is bound to cast uncertainty over public spending, it looks as though highways could continue growing in the coming years from its nadir of a few years back.

As Lafarge Tarmac Contracting’s Mr Rowley says: “The Highways Agency is talking about tripling spending to 2021. That is a significant increase, so imagine the [recruitment] challenge if that materialises at the rate they are talking about.”

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