Contractors will need an extra 15,000 tunnellers over the next five years if a host of huge schemes are to be built on time.
There are just 500 tunnellers working in the UK and the recruitment crisis has prompted leading contractors to band together to form a skills body, TunnelSkills, to hire and train the army of tunnellers needed for major projects like Crossrail.
Some utility companies planning big tunnelling jobs are now looking to the other side of the world to make sure they meet the skills gaps.
Thames Water will post a contract notice on the Official Journal of the European Union next month for bidders for the first tranche of work on its £2.2 billion Thames Tideway scheme to improve London’s sewer system.
Thames Water major projects director Steve Walker said: “As well as the OJEU, we want to make sure people internationally are aware of the project. We’ve been looking at getting staff from Japan and the States.”
TunnelSkills has been formed by the British Tunnelling Society and ConstructionSkills and features Balfour Beatty, Costain, Joseph Gallagher, Morgan Est, Edmund Nuttall, Rorcon and Skanska as founder members.
Chairman Bob Ibell said firms will need 5,000 skilled workers and a further 10,000 back-up staff to cover the upcoming work, which includes a £371 million twin-bore road tunnel project at Hindhead, Surrey, as well ongoing cabling work for the National Grid.
He said his members were worried about where firms were going to find experienced tunnellers: “It’s a great concern. There is currently a labour shortage because we have neglected the industry for the past 15 years. There has not been a regular flow of work.”
Recruits from Eastern Europe will fill some gaps while Portuguese tunnellers who worked on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link are expected to return.
Doug Oakervee, the executive chairman of Crossrail, which is setting up an academy to find tunnellers for the 42 km of tunnel the project needs, admitted he was worried whether there was capacity to carry out all the work.
He said: “This is a problem, not with the Olympics because all the heavy civils work there will be done, but there is a concern with other tunnelling works.
“We’re setting up an education centre to train people before we need them.”
Once it gets hold of the tunnellers, TunnelSkills is promoting the use of an NVQ Tunnel Safety Passport for personnel working underground.
The initiative has been backed by major industry clients including airport operator BAA, London Underground and utility firms EDF Energy, Northern Ireland Water and Wessex Water.Analysis: Sector hampered by lack of job continuity
By Alistair Collin
ConstructionSkills has worked with the tunnelling sector for the past few years to see how we can support them with training and qualifying their workforce.
This is essential because a key issue for tunnelling is a lack of a single trade body to support and represent them.
The sector requires very specialist skills that are not continually in demand. Consequently when one major project finishes, tunnellers can find they are not able to walk straight into a new job.
This has made creating a formal NVQ qualification difficult, a problem compounded by the lack of one voice representing the sector’s needs.
TunnelSkills, which acts as a training forum, allows us to link directly to the sector to help formalise one of the industry’s specialist training requirements.
Alistair Collin is ConstructionSkills national specialist manager