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Recruitment/roads: Fast lane for jobs

With spending on UK roads projects increasing dramatically, the sector is looking for new recruits, as Margo Cole reports.

It’s been a long time coming, but at last the roads sector in the UK is booming. In recent years, as the recession eased and other sectors of the infrastructure market started to pick up, many thought the good times would never return in highways, the sector that was once the mainstay of the UK construction industry.

But now, with the dramatic reform of the Highways Agency under way, private developers ready to invest in infrastructure needed for new homes and commercial developments, and mothballed projects being brought back into local and national plans, there is much to excite the UK’s highway engineers.

We are recruiting 15 professional apprentices and 30 graduates each year in our UK highways business as part of investment in future capability in the industry

And there is much to drive recruitment of those engineers. Consultant Atkins, for example, currently has 150 vacancies in its UK highways business at all levels.

“We are recruiting 15 professional apprentices and 30 graduates each year in our UK highways business as part of investment in future capability in the industry,” says Atkins managing director of highways and transportation Philip Hoare.

“At the other end we are after senior design and project managers who can lead on large complex infrastructure schemes, senior consultants who can advise our clients on planning strategy through to transport technology and everything in between.”

The need to recruit is evident when you look at the amount of roads projects currently underway and due to start in the next few years.

As the latest Highways Agency statistics show, there are currently 33 schemes in construction, worth a total of £3.3bn. And in last summer’s spending review, a further 33 schemes were approved, worth £10.7bn, to start during the next Parliament. Another £4.41bn will be spent on asset renewals during the same period.

Approved schemes include some that have been on the back burner since well before the recession - like the A21 Tonbridge to Pembury duelling and the A27 Chichester Bypass upgrade - but, noticeably, a considerable proportion of spend will be going on capacity-enhancing “managed” and “smart” motorway schemes. Among the 14 such schemes on the list are large sections of the M6 and M1, as well as the M60, M27 and M62.

“The Highways Agency and local authorities are investing a lot more in road schemes,” says Hoare. “The Highways Agency, for instance, will see a threefold increase in capital funding.”

Last autumn the agency started the procurement process for its Collaborative Delivery Framework, which will be used for much of this managed motorway programme, as well as some conventional major schemes, including the A14 upgrade, and junction improvements, asset renewals and projects in its “pinch point” programme. The framework is worth around £5bn.

Government ownership

Next year the agency will undergo a major change, becoming a government-owned company that will have five year spending periods, similar to those in the water and rail sectors. According to Hoare, this move will have a positive effect on recruitment and retention.

“The plan to move the Highways Agency funding to five year cycles provides more certainty and visibility of work, and this in turn allows us to invest in the long-term capability of our people,” he says.

Interestingly, Hoare says Atkins is interested in recruiting people with non-traditional backgrounds to work on its roads portfolio, as well as skilled highway engineers.

“We are also targeting people who can bring new skills and experiences, as well as innovation and challenge,” he says. “This includes, for instance, women who may have taken a career break and want to return to work, or those with experience in other sectors.”

With the government’s figures anticipating an extra 734 lane kilometres of road to be added to the UK network in the next five years, in addition to massive opportunities overseas, the jobs certainly are there for anyone looking for a career in this fast-growing sector.

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