Getting serious on infrastructure

Written by: Evelyn Adams
Published on: 13 Jan 2016

George Osborne wants the UK to get serious about its infrastructure projects. That was the message he gave as part of his December 2015 spending review, which included making £61bn available for projects, along with an £11bn investment in London’s transport.

The funding has been described as the largest transport investment programme since the 1970s and will include the electrification of railway lines such as the Trans-Pennine, Midland Main Line and Great Western.

“Construction of HS2 to link the so-called ‘northern powerhouse’ to the south can begin,” Osborne said during the announcement.

He added: “We’ll fund our new transport for the north to get it up and running. And we will be spending over £5bn on roads maintenance this Parliament. Businesses also need an active and sustained industrial strategy.”

It wasn’t just transport that got a boost. Osborne also doubled expenditure on energy research, while making a commitment to building small modular nuclear reactors. All this investment means it’s an ideal time to pursue a career in civil engineering. “There are a number of large-scale civil engineering projects across a range of sectors to be excited about in the UK, from transport and water to energy and digital infrastructure,” said Chris Marsh, director of resourcing at Atkins.

Among them is the transformation of Birmingham New Street Station, which opened earlier this year. Marsh also cites Crossrail, along with future projects such as HS2 and Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon as examples of schemes that should get future civil engineers inspired about career opportunities.

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“The UK plans extensive new infrastructure investment,” said Simon Harrison, group strategic development manager at Mott MacDonald. “Crossrail 2 will facilitate a better quality of life for Londoners, as well as enabling the continued success of this amazing world city. The northern powerhouse will provide better transport links across the north and help breathe new life into the region that saw the birth of modern industry. There will be a host of new electricity projects, including nuclear power stations.”

Crossrail 2 is among the most ambitious infrastructure projects proposed in the UK. It will create a north-south crossing of the capital between Wimbledon and Tottenham Hale via Clapham Junction, Chelsea, Victoria and Euston. The £25bn project will become operational by 2030 and is estimated to support 200,000 new jobs in engineering, construction and manufacturing through its supply chain. Consultancy firm KPMG claims that the project could contribute up to £102bn to the UK’s economy by increasing productivity.

There are a number of large-scale civil engineering projects across a range of sectors to be excited about in the UK, from transport to digital” - Chris Marsh, Atkins

“One of the great challenges of the day is to not only renew our major infrastructure but to simultaneously increase capacity it as we do,” said Dervilla Mitchell, a civil engineer and Arup director. “Across the spectrum we are seeing rail projects such as HS2, Crossrail – which will bring 1.5 million more people to within 45 minutes of central London – and the 20 years in the making King’s Cross development matched with utilities project [such as] the Thames Tideway all attempting to respond to these challenges.”

The industry is desperately trying to fill its skills gap. Construction output is forecast to increase 17.8 per cent by 2018, according to forecasts from the Construction Products Association. Earlier this year, the government published its National Infrastructure Plan for Skills. The plan expects that the pipeline of projects will create a demand for over 250,000 construction and over 150,000 engineering workers with the need to recruit and train an additional 100,000 workers by the end of the decade.

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There is still a role for those with a passion for deep technical knowledge and analytical skills” - Simon Harrison, Mott MacDonald

The transport sector appears to be the worst affected by the shortage, which has a peak demand forecast between this year and 2020. The energy and utilities industries will also experience peak demand for skills beyond 2020. It is hoped that the increase in funding for apprentices will help fill this gap, and recruiters are on a drive to find engineers, both at graduate level, and form parallel industries.

To help with this apprenticeships were given much needed funding during the spending review. As part of a new scheme, large employers now have to commit to spend 0.5 per cent of their wage bill on funding apprenticeships.

The scheme will come into force in April 2017, and will help ensure that large companies shoulder some of the cost of training, George Osborne said.

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Earlier this year, a House of Lords report into the costs of High Speed 2 said that a lack of skills, long-term planning and capacity in the UK construction sector is the reason behind its soaring costs. As such, recruiters are keen to find talented engineers in this sector. “While a problem for the industry as a whole, the current skills shortage presents a great opportunity for considering future career paths,” said Mitchell.

Marsh said that doesn’t mean jobs will be easy to come by. Engineers still need the right connections and qualifications. He added that anyone wanting to pursue a career in civil engineering should network with people in the industry. “To be a successful civil engineer it’s not just about technical skills on projects,” he added. “Softer skills, such as the way we communicate, and how we create and develop relationships with teams and clients are vital.”

Harrison said: “The good news is that civil engineering is a broad profession, with room for a wide diversity of talent. Increasingly we look for people able to work flexibly in multidisciplinary teams, and able to express their ideas clearly not just to fellow engineers but also to non-specialists in business and in public service, and to the general public. However there is still a role for those with a passion for deep technical knowledge and with great analytical skills.

“The world’s need for new infrastructure is enormous, and the design and delivery of this  infrastructure, if done well, can contribute enormously to making a better future. And that’s why now is a good time to look at civil engineering as a career.”