Solving the skills shortage for smart motorways

Whilst the introduction of more smart motorways is great news for the industry, it poses a challenge for an already skills-short sector. So what skills are required on these highways projects and where can the sector find the skills it needs?

Skills in demand

Engineers with qualifications and experience in design, ITS and electrical engineering are particularly in demand to help move these projects forward.

There are also many other skillsets needed in the design, construction, maintenance and operation of a smart motorway so employers involved in these projects will also be looking for candidates with skills in traffic management and analysis, operation and safety and environment/economic assessment.

Solutions to the skills gap

Transferable skills

To tackle the problem, employers need to utilise the UK’s current skills market in its broadest sense. In the short term, they should consider hiring people from varied backgrounds, such as Mechanical and Electrical Engineers and Electrical/Cabling Engineers who have the transferable skills to pick up the work needed on these projects.

Notwithstanding the general turnover of staff and engineers nearing retirement, employers within the highways industry in general need to widen their search for skilled engineers to meet workforce targets. With engineering being one of the toughest industries to recruit for; the benefits of transferable skills should not be overlooked.

Education

Beyond this existing pool of professionals, who can fulfil some of the current demand, highways employers and the industry as a whole need to find longer term strategies to reduce the skills gap in the future. A major influence on the future talent pipeline is education so more innovative solutions within academia are needed to help future engineers develop their skillsets. More skill-based apprenticeship and degree opportunities and greater promotion of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects with younger generations is vital.

Engineering students currently spend up to four years at university predominantly studying theory but clearly, having hands-on experience is just as relevant for a career in engineering. Employers within the industry can help steer the content of courses by advising educational institutions on the current and future market. Ultimately, this will help ensure that students are better prepared for the demands of the job once they leave academia and their skill sets and experience will be more desirable to employers.

Of course, work has already started on improving the quality, relevance and breadth of educational opportunities within engineering disciplines. The government is investing in apprenticeships; universities are offering a wider range of courses; and employers in industry are offering graduate placements. The industry as a whole just needs to keep up this momentum to continue tackling the skills gap.

Retention of existing engineers

While positive steps are being taken in academia, it will likely take time before graduates filter through and replenish the stock of engineers that the highways industry needs. Therefore, the industry must also seek to retain the valuable existing talent for completion of these projects.

Upskilling current engineers will play a vital role in this process. Bringing together adult apprenticeship schemes for those already working in highways and those who want to transfer but lack the accredited engineering skills could boost the talent pipeline and allow for experienced staff to be promoted into more senior roles.

One way to aid retention and support existing staff would be to reintroduce rewards for those who achieve professional registration. This can be an effective employer strategy to encourage development and tier salaries. From an engineer’s perspective, the process allows them to take a critical view on the industry and their career, with successful registrants more likely to remain in the sector.

Looking forward

With RIS1 and many smart motorway schemes now underway and the second Road Investment Strategy planned for implementation in 2020, the highways sector must widen its search for talent by considering transferable skills, encouraging hands-on training for engineers and looking at opportunities to upskill people already working in the industry. There is no complete or immediate solution to the skills shortage but universities, businesses and the government must work together to ensure there are enough highways engineers fully trained and available to complete these ambitious and innovative projects.

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