The ICE’s National Needs Assessment (NNA), launched in October this year, highlighted the need for investment in transport infrastructure and housing to enable balanced economic growth, create thriving communities and deliver a transition to a low carbon future.
This influential project delivered by your institution uses information gathered from ICE members and targets decision-makers, and it would seem that the government has taken the advice on board.
In his Autumn Statement, chancellor Philip Hammond – a former transport secretary – announced significant investment in housing, local and strategic transport, ultra-low emission vehicles, digital signalling technology and fibre broadband connections. We cannot know whether the statement would have been different without the NNA, but the emphasis on infrastructure and innovation cannot be entirely coincidence. One thing is certain. On top of recent announcements about Heathrow and High Speed 2, there is a lot of civil engineering to be done and we need skilled people to do it.
While the investment is welcome, these projects and initiatives, and the economic and social benefits they bring can only be delivered effectively if we tackle the skills gap. Perversely, as the pipeline of work continues to grow, recruitment has stalled – attributed in part to the uncertainty engendered by Brexit. But we cannot afford to stop training the next generation of engineers and technicians. Indeed, post-Brexit, perhaps without skilled EU workers, our need will be greater. The baby boomers are now retiring, and we urgently need to attract and train a new generation to address the shortfall. The recent Farmer Review of the construction industry – provocatively entitled Modernise or Die – suggests that our industry faces “inexorable decline” unless we take urgent action. Fundamentally, this means attracting and providing opportunities for trainees at every level, building a diverse workforce that is drawn from the whole population, regardless of gender, ethnicity or any other divisive categorisation, and doing it now.
How do we plug the gap? Technology is advancing more rapidly than ever before, with new materials, innovative techniques and increasing computing power available to underpin our ideas and support our creativity as engineers. We must embrace innovation and digital technologies to drive change, not only to increase productivity, but also to enhance our attractiveness as a career option for the brightest and best. And we need to tell people about it. Currently, the public only sees one part of the story – the holes in the ground, cranes, and construction equipment. How can parents and teachers advise young people that civil engineering offers a great career opportunity if they don’t know what we do? Only we can tell them, and we must get into schools, public spaces and the media to explain and celebrate what we do.
The crux of the matter is that if we want 21st century infrastructure, seamlessly integrated by the Internet of Things, powered by and powering a revolution in engineering data, we need to attract and train more engineers. The NNA has provided us with opportunities. We can do great things, but we don’t shout about them. We can offer fantastic, fulfilling careers, but we don’t shout about those either. It is time to start shouting.
- Penny Marshall is ICE director for Yorkshire & Humber and the North East