Keynotes on skills at HighwaysUK

Last week, the largest event in the highways calendar took place and our infrastructure and highways specialist recruiters were there to join in key conversations about the state of the sector. If you didn’t get the chance to attend or you wanted a reminder of the keynote conversation on skills, read on to find out what was discussed.

The session was led by three speakers: Grahame Carter, our very own Operations Director for Infrastructure; David Beddell, AECOM’s End Market Director, Highways, Europe and CIHT’s Sue Stevens, Director of Education & Membership. The conversation was all about how highways competes with other infrastructure sectors and the skills shortages it faces.

The state of skills in highways

As an industry, engineering is experiencing a considerable skills shortage as a result of an ageing workforce, a lack of young people coming into the industry and increasing competition of projects outside of the UK. At the same time, investment within the highways sector is ramping up and a number of highways projects are in the pipeline which will rely on the skills of a significant number of engineers, with Contracts Managers being particularly in demand. The question is how can we combat this skills shortage to ensure we can deliver these exciting and much-needed projects?

Solutions to the skills gap

During the discussion, three main solutions arose. The first was to promote careers in highways, the second was to widen the talent pool and the third was to retain the existing talent within the highways industry.

Promoting highways jobs

With the A14 Improvement Scheme (the largest highways project in the UK) and several Smart Motorway projects underway and on the horizon, it’s a busy and exciting time within highways. These projects are changing and improving the transport network of our roads in the UK, making them fit for 21st century demand. The sector needs to reach out to young people and show them how interesting highways projects are, describe how rewarding a career in engineering can be and educate them on what subjects they need to study as a prerequisite for highways jobs.

Widening the search for engineering talent

Now more than ever, the highways sector needs to widen its search for candidates. This is true not just in Infrastructure but across all technical engineering sectors. The existing talent pool of skilled engineers is getting smaller; solely focusing on this talent is limiting what the industry can achieve. Instead, highways employers need to take a more open-minded view to their recruitment criteria to make use of the talent that exists in other sectors, most notably in Oil & Gas. Casting the net more widely to take new recruits from other engineering backgrounds can only help an industry which is crying out for engineers.

Retaining top talent

Infrastructure projects are expanding at a rapid rate and are competing for skilled engineers to get the work done. Including the vast range of highways projects across the UK within the Road Investment Strategy (RIS1) there are projects such as Heathrow, HS2 and Hinckley Point, all of which require hundreds to thousands of engineers to complete the works so employers in highways need to be careful to retain the engineers they already have. There is extensive competition to attract skilled engineers from within Infrastructure and increasingly from other engineering fields.

Previously we have seen engineers transfer from the Oil & Gas sector but more recently from within the Rail and Water sectors. Many engineers share the same qualities that can be transferred across industries, such as those engineers with experience in the Structural, Civil, Mechanical and Electrical disciplines. Tunnelling is one area where we have seen engineers transferring across sectors between different projects, including Crossrail, Thames Tideway and Hindhead on the A3.

One potential barrier to retention is that other sectors offer engineers higher pay. Looking at The Engineer’s 2016 Salary Survey, Civil Engineers are paid on average £43,181 per year, compared to engineers in the Energy sector who receive on average £50,132. However the results also showed the majority of engineers working in rail, civil and structural disciplines were happy in their current job (55.4%, one of the highest ratings amongst 11 sectors), demonstrating that job satisfaction is about more than just pay.

Working on innovative projects seems to be another main factor in job satisfaction but we can’t ignore the pull of a higher salary for an equally interesting role in other engineering sectors. Company culture is another important factor in retaining employees; make a company enjoyable to work for and employees will stay. If an engineer feels comfortable, well respected and valued they will stay.

Your views on highways

Do you agree with the solutions from the discussion? AECOM is keen to hear your views on the skills shortage within highways and other important industry issues. If you’d like to share your thoughts, please take part in their skills survey.

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