The Skills Challenge

We need a new generation of engineers, designers and construction professionals.


Good morning.

Thank you for that introduction Andrew (Neil – Chairman).

A few weeks ago, the Treasury published a report called the National Infrastructure Plan for Skills.

It set out an infrastructure programme worth a staggering £411 billion across the UK economy from 2015 onwards.

Planned by both public and private sectors across transport, energy, communications and the environment.

Although dizzying in scale the report clearly established the biggest construction and engineering challenge of this age.

How to train and provide a skilled workforce capable of delivering such a vast programme within an already competitive global infrastructure market.

So today I want to talk about the unprecedented skills challenge we face in Britain today.

And particularly within transport.


When we look back at Britain’s rich transport history, our ships that created the first global economy, our railway that blazed a trail during the 19th century, our genius for industrial design and engineering, we tend to associate our success with a few brilliant pioneers.

And rightly so.

If it weren’t for the ‘Stephensons’ and ‘Brunels’, the development of transport would have looked very different.

But what’s often overlooked is how we were able to mobilise a highly skilled workforce, which was just as important a resource as the coalfields which powered the Industrial Revolution.

But in the 20th century, when we stopped investing in transport, we stopped investing in skills.

They were no longer handed down to the next generation.

Competitors began to overtake us.

And we’re living with the legacy of that underinvestment today.

Not just on our roads and railways.

But in our workforce too.

So when we’re investing £70 billion in transport in this Parliament alone, we need a new generation of engineers, designers and construction professionals, as well as highly skilled people to operate the networks once they’re opened.


To illustrate the challenge, I want to focus today on HS2.

Not just the single biggest transport scheme of our time, but the largest infrastructure project in Britain since the coming of the motorways.

25,000 jobs will be created during construction alone.

And it’s now just 2 years until building begins.

So preparations are moving quickly ahead.

Over the summer we started recruiting for HS2’s design panel.

Lord Adonis – who championed HS2 as Transport Secretary in the last Labour government – joined HS2 Ltd’s board.

And in the coming year the HS2 Bill is set to pass through the Hybrid Bill committee and reach third reading.

We have a clear plan to manage the deployment of thousands of infrastructure professionals, along with all the materials and machinery, in the run up to 2017.

And we are now starting the procurement process by preparing the contracts that will be signed as soon as the Bill has passed.

HS2 will create some of the largest value contracts in UK construction history.

They will generate tens of thousands of opportunities, 60% of which we expect to be awarded to small- and medium-sized businesses.

So HS2 Ltd has been touring round the country to engage firms interested in bidding most recently in Northern Ireland and Scotland.

So they too can start preparing to attract and develop the talented staff that will help them become a successful part of the HS2 story.

Patrick McLoughlin

Skills and apprenticeships

But we know the skills shortage won’t solve itself.

We’re conscious that while we look for 25,000 skilled professionals for HS2, we also need 20,000 more people to deliver other road and rail schemes.

And that’s before we consider other potential new transport projects like Crossrail 2.

So we are getting ready now.

First, we are transforming apprenticeships with a commitment to train 3 million apprentices by 2020.

We have appointed Terry Morgan, the chairman of Crossrail, to develop a transport skills strategy, including 30,000 new rail and road apprenticeships in this Parliament.

We are working with suppliers to achieve this, and promoting a culture change that focuses on future need and not just the job in hand.

So when suppliers bid for work, they will also pledge to take on trainees, apprentices and graduates. and equip the workforce with the skills they need for the long-term.

We believe it’s better to invest in home-grown talent now, rather than wait and outsource work to international consultants later.

And it’s the supply chain, taking on apprentices at local levels, that will drive the skills revolution.

Academies and colleges

But we’re also creating institutions to train our future workforce.

The Tunnelling and Underground Construction Academy, sponsored by Crossrail, has already trained 7000 people.

Network Rail is investing £37 million in three new training centres across Britain.

This will make a total of 7 training centres which will supply the railway with skilled staff.

Last month, Rail Minister Claire Perry opened the National Training Academy for Rail in Northampton.

This is a multi-million pound state of the art centre to develop the next generation of rail engineers.

And in 2017, the National College for High Speed Rail will give a thousand graduates a year a fantastic grounding in modern engineering and construction.

Together, these colleges will form a national network of skills academies to train the transport workers of the future.

But simply building new training facilities is only part of the solution.

We need to attract a bigger pool of talent.

And to achieve that, we must make a career in engineering or infrastructure more appealing to a wider selection of youngsters.

To deliver the transport projects I’ve outlined, making the workforce more diverse and inclusive isn’t just beneficial.

It’s imperative.

Diverse workforce

For example, we desperately need to attract more women into engineering and construction.

Diversity is evolving today.

It’s not about tokenism or political correctness.

And it’s not just about fairness and equality of opportunity.

It’s about making industry better.

It’s about attracting the brightest and best people from all sections of society.

And it’s about the make-up of industry reflecting the customer base.

Why is it that in 2015, men still make up over 90% of airline pilots and train drivers in this country, 90% of transport and logistics managers, and over 80% of Network Rail staff?

Well women still complain of unequal pay.

Of a boys’ club culture in the workplace.

And discrimination over issues like childcare and maternity leave.

Gradually we’re changing that.

Crossrail is being built by a much more diverse workforce.

But the longer-term challenge is to change the way we promote the industry.

We need to explain the social value of what we do.

How transport binds together our society.

How the railway helps us reduce carbon emissions by taking traffic off the roads.

How engineers and the construction industry change the lives of millions of people.

And we also need to sell the value of engineering qualifications.

How those skills are appreciated by employers across the economy.

So an engineering degree is not perceived as narrowing your future opportunities.

In fact precisely the opposite: opening up so many career options.

Particularly now. Here. In Britain.

Last year I announced my intention to make 2018 the Year of the Engineer.

Since then there’s been widespread and enthusiastic support from the engineering community for the concept.

I see this as a chance to excite young people, so more choose science, technology, engineering and maths subjects at school and go on to choose engineering jobs in the future.


So, to sum up.

Change on the scale I’ve talked about today will of course take time.

But we’ve never had a better opportunity to achieve change than we do today.

This is a country accustomed to a Victorian transport infrastructure, stuck together with bits of 20th century sticking plaster.

Whole generations have never travelled on a new, cutting edge transport system.

But just look at what the redevelopment of St Pancras and then Kings Cross achieved in London.

And in the past few weeks, how the re-opening of Birmingham New Street and Manchester Victoria stations have been rapturously reviewed by the people of those cities.

I think the opening of Crossrail will continue the process.

Not just transforming journeys.

But transforming people’s perception of what transport can do for a city.

And ultimately, I believe HS2 can change the way thousands of youngsters think about careers in construction and infrastructure.

So, yes, we face an unprecedented challenge.

But we also have an unprecedented opportunity.

So let’s grasp it.

Thank you.