The skills shortage. It’s back, and back with a bang. And that’s not me saying that, its roads minister Andrew Jones. He told NCE’s UK Roads 2015 conference this week his biggest worry now is that our industry will be unable to deliver on the government’s ambitious roads programme.
And that’s big and worrying news, given the emphasis the government has placed on road spending - and spending on infrastructure in general - to drive the UK economy. Jones was addressing our conference a day after chancellor George Osborne set out plans to make the UK more productive - and highways are at the heart of those plans. To prove it, he announced that by the end of the decade all vehicle excise duty - car tax - will be ring-fenced for spending on strategic roads. That’s about £6bn a year that will be dedicated to improving the highway network.
And as Jones told our conference that, while that is not new money, it is guaranteed money - guaranteed money that provides the certainty our industry has been seeking to invest in skills and new technologies.
It means the government has been listening; it also means the government has given the industry pretty much everything it has ever asked for.
Now, as Jones said, it is for the industry to “just get on with it”.
But it should be a major concern for us all that his “biggest worry” is that the roads programme will suffer cost overruns and delays similar to those affecting the troubled rail programme.
We need to show him that we are up to the challenge, that we are building a sustainable, technologically adept, skilled workforce that can deliver £3bn or more of roads schemes a year alongside a similarly-sized renewal and maintenance programme.
How do we do that? First, we need to accept our current limitations and look to work with some of the best from abroad to ensure we can deliver in the here and now. Jones was clear about that. But, as he also said, that should not be the long-term solution. That would be a failure of our industry.
So second, and more importantly, we need to start now to build up that skilled workforce. The government has already said that it now expects firms demonstrate their commitment to training in all tenders. Jones added: “We will be asking - do bidders have the skills in place to deliver? We’ll be asking - do they have the training programmes; the apprenticeship programmes?”
This we have to get right. There really are no excuses.
According to Jones we have now got the political will to give us the cash. Now we’ve got to scale up and deliver. To train. To bring people into the industry. We have a huge national shortage of engineers. This is the chance to fix that.
- Mark Hansford is NCE’s editor