Benjamin Disraeli said ‘Nurture your minds with great thoughts. To believe in the heroic makes heroes, and heroines.’
How rarely in modern times have our minds turned to greatness or sights focused to distant horizons – how rarely we’ve dared to dream of the heroic; to imagine a greater future which brings new opportunity, greater wellbeing.
And to make that future happen.
Over my lifetime, governments in democratic polities have too rarely embarked on building the future countries need and people want.
Perhaps that explained by the 5 year electoral cycle; the need to deal with daily imperatives; maybe a reluctance to take the hand of successors through long term funding commitments; or perhaps, the post-war political discourse just became too technocratic, mechanistic – too arid.
Not now though.
Not this government.
Now we are realising the power of making a difference.
We are thinking, planning and funding for the long term.
Well, we have embarked on the greatest period of transport investment for well over a generation.
That means new jobs, new skills, new chances, to fuel economic success and feed communal well-being.
Overall, transport infrastructure spending is rising by 50% this Parliament.
We’re investing £15 billion to maintain and improve our roads, resurfacing 80% of the existing network and building 1,300 new lane miles.
We are delivering the most ambitious rail modernisation programme since the Victorian era.
Crossrail, Thameslink, Intercity Express Programme.
We’re buying hundreds of new trains, and thousands of new carriages.
And then there’s HS2, which we start building next year.
In all, this rising tide of construction makes our nation one of the world’s leading transport investors.
Boosting our economy, building our prosperity.
But all this must not be measured solely in economic terms.
It’s about spreading the chances to succeed and nurturing confidence, purpose and pride; it’s about wellbeing.
Creating tens of thousands of new jobs, with countless newly acquired skills.
During peak construction, it’s going to need 25,000 skilled people. With imagination, organisation, innovation needed to make this new railway age as great as the first.
Meanwhile, the changes to our roads and existing railways require a further 10,000 skilled people.
It is a fallacy of rationalism to believe that only academic study can have real value for as John Ruskin wrote ‘the highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it.’
The more pleasure we take in our work – manual or mental – in engineering’s case both – the more of ourselves we invest in it, the more we get in return.
I began to think about the long term need for skills more than 10 years ago as a Shadow Minister.
I knew that we must elevate the practical by rejuvenating our apprenticeship programme, challenging the misassumption that only academic accomplishment really mattered.
We’ve begun to redefine higher learning.
And we have travelled far.
We need curious, adaptable, imaginative women to build all our futures, and we’ve advanced, from 280,000 apprenticeships in 2010, to over 600,000 now.
Since 2010, we have increased level 4 apprenticeships tenfold, from under 2,000, to 20,000.
Progression is an essential part of this new approach to vocational learning, because I know that apprenticeships must be a highway to greater achievement, not a cul de sac.
You know we have increased engineering apprenticeships, in fact there were 74,000 last year, compared with 43,000 six years ago.
You know as well that our great universities produce 46,000 engineering graduates each year.
And you know too that few, far too few, are women.
For all our outstanding commitment to infrastructural development.
For all our work on skills.
All around us, in our families, in our schools, our workplaces, on our streets walk hundreds of thousands of scientists, mathematicians and engineers whose talents lie undiscovered hidden even from themselves.
They might be living happy and useful lives.
But may never know the satisfaction of finding the occupation that truly fits their talents.
Making a difference day by day.
And as a nation, we will never know the true scale of the price we pay for wasting such talent.
It’s a price paid in lost craft, undeveloped skills.
It matters for individuals because of talents never tapped, dreams unfulfilled…
It matters for us all, with projects uncompleted, overrun or over budget.
It’s a price paid in unbuilt bridges, missing motorways, run-down railway stations, unexcavated train tunnels all the engineering projects we’d have accomplished if only we’d had the engineers.
If there was ever a time to take action to inspire women to succeed in engineering it is now.
Well the government’s investment in transport is our great chance to bring about change.
Now, there is a battle to win for men and women – for us all.
Remarkable things are already happening in our country.
On Monday, I met a group of apprentices, men and women
Enthusiastic, proud, gaining confidence
They are working on the largest infrastructure project in Europe.
The most technically challenging.
The most ambitious.
In little over 3 years, working through night and day, 26 miles of tunnels dug.
And amongst the greatest achievements of this ground breaking project is the way it has welcomed women into the world of engineering and construction.
Just listen to the facts.
Of those who have undertaken work experience on the project, over a fifth are women.
Of the project’s last intake of apprentices, over a quarter were women.
And women make up a quarter of those taking part in the graduate programme, too.
Crossrail - the most dynamic, ambitious scheme of its kind ever embarked upon.
And in total, of the 10,000 people working on Crossrail, nearly one third are women.
Let no sceptic say it can’t be done.
Let no critic claim it won’t be done.
It is being done under this great city as we meet today.
Infrastructure skills strategy
The Crossrail line is now almost complete – on time and on budget.
The task now is to hold the ground already won – and to advance to new heights.
So, this year, we published the governments ‘Infrastructure skills strategy’.
It includes a pledge to increase the number of women working in infrastructure.
And this is how we’re doing it.
Because we’re paying, we get to call the shots.
For HS2, road investment, the upgrades to our existing network and railway stations we’re writing it into the contracts that we want women hired for the work.
In practice, it means that women should make up at least 20% of new entrants to engineering and technical apprenticeships in the transport sector and the women working in the transport sector should increase to a number in line with the general population within the next 14 years.
We also want to address the phenomenon that’s seen 22,000 qualified women not return to engineering after a career or maternity break.
So we’re pressing organisations with over 250 employees to provide opportunities to those who wish to come back.
And today because of this conference and to support your work I have asked your Chair, Trudy Norris-Grey, to work with the woman I appointed to run the National Careers Service, Dr Deidre Hughes, to work with the department, to explain how we can guide and support young women to achieve all they can.
We have the opportunity of a lifetime.
Times of investment are rare at this scale and pace.
And no one can say when days like these will come round again.
So we must take our chances the investment in our roads, in our existing railways, and in HS2 we’ll make great transport projects.
But, we’ll make much more than this, a better-connected, more productive country, and by this, in Disraeli’s spirit, we’ll nurture our minds with the greatness of communal wellbeing.
But still more than this - we will combine, all of us, to work together, to unleash unrealised talent of tens of thousands of women.
Each with a chance of greatness - each in their sphere, in their way, heroic.
A new generation of heroines.