Lord Blunkett has called on the government to approve plans for Heathrow’s expansion early next year, so that there will be enough time to up-skill the workforce before major construction recruitment starts in 2022.
He warned of a catastrophe for projects and the country if plans aren’t in place soon to head off a skills shortage.
It comes as the Heathrow skills taskforce has opened a six week, UK-wide online consultation to get views on its future education, employment and skills strategy.
The taskforce is chaired by ex-home secretary Blunkett, who said the first thing he wanted to get across was there was a “massive opportunity to be grasped here in adding value to an already substantial project.”
The airport is currently looking to build a third runway and wants to put together a skills academy for training the next generation of mechanical, electrical and civil engineers. Blunkett said it wanted to benefit the whole of the UK by building regional hubs as well as those in the south-east.
“This should be a win win for the country and it should ripple out through the supply chain with small and medium enterprises (SMEs) being really important,” he said. “Quite a lot of work can be fabricated and brought in to the Heathrow site from around the country as well as west London and beyond.”
The idea for the new academy has come from Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye. Delivering a sustainable skills strategy is a vital part of securing permission to expand.
Although Heathrow is funding the academy and the initial task force, Blunkett said the government should think about what contribution it could make to the “nationally beneficial” scheme. The taskforce said it had been working closely with other national infrastructure projects such as Tideway and Crossrail 2 to learn from their experiences.
“Tideway, for example, has a programme where they are offering a 12 week returns plan aimed at say women coming back from maternity leave. I think it’s a really good idea and it’s that kind of outreach that we are looking for in this consultation.”
The third runway project has yet to get final approval from the government. Despite this, Blunkett said it was necessary to start the consultation now to allow enough time to get the industry, schools and colleges geared up for the bulk of the construction work in 2022.
“We hope they [the government] make a decision very early 2018 so we can get everyone’s backing on this and all of the different sectors geared up,” he said. “The big employment hits for Heathrow around 2022. If you look at that four year time scale for the early part of the project, we’ve got to get a shift on because we have to skill people up and join up existing skills quickly.
“The timescales are getting quite tight, especially with Brexit, over the next 10 to 15 years there could be a real demand for all sorts of jobs. If we don’t think about it now we’re going to end up with a really big shortage. That would be catastrophic for not only the projects themselves but for our economy.”
Ideas will be incorporated into the Taskforce’s final set of recommendations which will be given to Heathrow by the end of 2018.