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Skill shortages jeopardise £180bn transport plan

SKILL SHORTAGES threaten to undermine the Government's £180bn, 10 year transport plan, consultants warned this week.

Falling numbers of civil engineering students are expected to create a crisis among consultants and clients as they gear up for massive transport growth over the next decade, they said.

Consultants said the 10 year plan would push the industry's management skills to the brink as civil engineering firms struggled to cope with a massive upturn in workload.

Mott MacDonald director Clive Livingstone said that it would become increasingly difficult to find trained people as not enough new graduates were coming into the industry.

'This is going to put even more pressure on us, ' he said. 'It is difficult to know what we are going to do - there are no easy answers. Universities cannot start producing new graduates overnight. People are now talking about drafting in technicians (to work as engineers).'

MVA director Denvil Coombe added that consultants would run into capacity problems unless the Government acted to manage the flow of work.

'For the transport planning industry it is going to be very difficult, ' he warned. 'There is a finite pool of resources. It all comes down to the number of bodies - I can see there will be some late delivery. There is already a lack of experience within many organisations as they struggle to retain staff.'

Construction Industry Council chief executive Graham Watts said: 'We have a recruitment crisis. In all the major management and engineering based disciplines we cannot produce enough people. We are about to see the difficulties of a workload peak.'

Under the plan transport spending is expected to rise rapidly over the next five years, with the rate of growth peaking in mid-decade when annual expenditure rises above £18bn.

While much of the work in the plan is unconfirmed, the Government anticipates that in around four years several massive projects will run concurrently.

These include section 2 of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, the West and East Coast mainline upgrades, Crossrail, Thameslink 2000, numerous road improvement projects and upgrading the London Tube. .

Watts said many of the most influential clients about to implement the transport spend were also suffering staffing shortages and so would be less able to control procurement.

Costs are likely to escalate as a result although some indsustry leaders felt that increases could be kept under control through greater use of recently developed procurement techniques like supply chain management.

'Certainly this will bring greater negotiating power to the supply side again, ' said Watts.

'But the last time this happened the industry hadn't gone through such a period of internalising. It could help to consolidate these reforms.'

Contractors were more bullish about handling the upturn.

Balfour Beatty director Malcolm Eckersall was confident that the skill shortages could be dealt with through better use of the supply chain. 'The shortages we are looking at are not in the management or design. It is the trade skills we are misssing' He emphasised that throughout the supply chain, ability had now been improving so the major players no longer 'have the monopoly on bright ideas'.

But Laing chief executive Jim Armstrong said contractors should resist the temptation to chase turnover in the hope of increasing profits. 'We are not looking to fill our boots and go chasing turnover, but there will be people who will, ' he warned.

Other contractors believe the sudden rise in workload could force many clients to deliver the good procurement practice they preach. The sheer bulk of work, they predicted, would enable firms to walk away from onerous conditions or unacceptable risk.

'Clients will have to start treating contractors and consultants better, ' said one contractor. 'The chickens are coming home to roost. Those who continue to have a short adversarial outlook will find the future very difficult.'

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