Shifting perceptions to drive skills: Challenges and opportunities for infrastructure

Ed Fray

Senior Project Manager

Infrastructure investment remains a go-to strategy for governments around the world looking to stimulate economic activity and improve standards of living.

The 2015 National Infrastructure Plan for Skills identified the need for an additional 100,000 workers across all trades and professions in order to deliver 2015 investment levels. Fast forward to the publication of the Farmer Review into the UK construction labour model a year later in October 2016, and it is easy to see that the slow pace of change means that existing skills challenges are only going to continue.

As construction wage inflation continues to drive up project costs, it is crucial to remember that the skills gap is more than a numbers game. The question of where the next generation of the infrastructure workforce comes from, how we can attract them to this dynamic sector, and how we can drive productivity across the sector is increasingly urgent. So what must be done?

Shifting the perception

Government funding alone will not be enough for the UK construction sector to meet its skills and capacity challenges.

It is no secret that the construction workforce in Europe is ageing and government analysis suggests that this is a particular problem in infrastructure. Despite recent efforts to address the number of graduates entering the sector and improvements in the gender and diversity balance of the industry, more must be done to attract young people to a career in construction.

To achieve this the industry must come together like never before to attract future employees. This includes changing the attitudes of the influencers of young people as much as the perceptions of students and young people themselves. Crucially this engagement should begin before they take the first step towards any future career (arguably at Key Stage 4.) We must address the outdated image of construction and modernise how society describes infrastructure and construction which today is innovative, technology-led and directly contributes to the development and growth of society as a whole.

For example, 3D printers which can automatically pour concrete without formwork or wastage from company Apis Cor and remotely controlled robots for handling highly hazardous waste are exciting technologies available today. The industry should be using their appeal to inspire people to find out more about construction.

In this respect, the sector could learn from the armed forces and the aerospace industry which have long-used targeted campaigns to display the diverse opportunities afforded by their respective sectors. If factors such as dramatic improvements in workforce health, safety and wellbeing over the last ten-20 years are combined with construction consistently ranking among the highest-paid and most innovative industries, then this could make a compelling proposition for those at the beginning of their career journey.

Thinking outside the box is important for driving skills.

Despite efforts to smooth the pipeline of infrastructure investment, cyclicality still adversely affects the infrastructure labour market. This stop-start investment leads to skills transferring elsewhere during downturns and lulls in regulatory cycles. To address this problem, the sector must develop new solutions for attracting staff back to the sector. One recent example is Thames Tideway that has adopted a returnship programme which aims to ease the reintegration of those who have been out of the industry for a number of years.

Now in its second round, the scheme has partnered with Women Returners to focus on bringing women previously on career breaks back into the workforce. This scheme and others such as the ICE’s Civils Comeback have the power to both tap into an existing source of skilled labour and help to address the continuing and pervasive lack of diversity in the infrastructure workforce.

The industry will also benefit from strong leadership. Arguably at present, it has no recognisable face or champion of construction and few public figures are from industry (MPs included). In essence, there are few flag-bearers to dispel perceptions about safety and conditions, especially as construction roles continue to move offsite with the advent of digitisation and prefabrication.

Our challenge as an industry is to help those without a natural curiosity find the opportunities infrastructure can offer. If too long is taken to tackle persistently low numbers of new entrants, the industry’s aging workforce concerns will eventually turn to crisis.

Changing the skills blend

Linked to a modernised image, the shift towards digital construction and offsite prefabrication has created a demand for a new set of skills across the sector.

Government and industry must again work together to develop flexible responses to skills needs, especially when driven by national policies such as mandating BIM Level 2. This could include conversion courses or expansion of traditional construction institutions and learned societies to recognise new disciplines. Linked to this, the Institution of Civil Engineers has recently voted in favour of broadening the range of built environment professions eligible for membership.

From a future workforce perspective, there are activities underway to ensure that future workers have the right skills to deliver our ambitious infrastructure needs. For example, there are positive steps underway through the creation of future technical levels which will see increased work experience requirements in addition to existing programmes such as Design Engineer Construct (DEC). DEC in particular is aiming to equip students with the skills they need to work in the built environment sector through delivering project-based approaches and applying pure academic subjects to the latest construction industry practices in order to inspire students while also ensuring that upon graduation, students are work ready.

The government’s green paper on industrial strategy identifies infrastructure as a key industrial sector with an “acute and urgent” skills shortage.

The sector has an opportunity to embrace the government’s recently published green paper on industrial strategy too. The industrial strategy sets out a vision for a single framework of approved technical qualifications developed in conjunction with industry which will serve the needs of both workers and employers. Government, industry and training providers should not be afraid to switch off traditional courses to allow new ones to start and to embrace the Government’s new T-level qualifications. The green paper combined with a renewed scrutiny of government skills investment as a result of the apprenticeship levy could prove a powerful force for change in this historically slow-moving but vital part of the industry.

The Apprenticeship Levy itself which went live in April 2017 is also a welcome initiative as it will encourage all sectors of industry to increase funding for apprenticeship opportunities. In turn, this will increase the number of apprentices, drive new opportunities in industry and grow the pool of skilled workers for the future.

Addressing productivity and capacity

It has long been acknowledged that construction productivity lags behind the rest of the economy with investment in skills and training rarely reaching levels in other sectors. Indeed, UK productivity as a whole lags behind both the USA and our European neighbours making a bad picture for British construction look worse.  The government’s £24bn productivity fund and commitment to invest 1.0-1.2 percent of GDP per annum in infrastructure demonstrate an on-going commitment to the UK’s pipeline of projects and is a positive start for addressing productivity concerns. As an industry, we must ensure that these commitments to and improvements in productivity are realised.

Forecasting labour demand must also be addressed if we are to deliver our challenging infrastructure pipeline. Despite increased understanding of future labour demands through recent advances in forecasting tools and models, little has been done to address the problem of skilled workers in traditionally conservative professions taking a long time to reach maturity.

Wider government cooperation on skills through coordinated investment and research is key to planning and forecasting skills requirements. The publication of the Department for Transport’s Infrastructure Skills Strategy less than four months after the National Infrastructure Plan for Skills is perhaps an example of an opportunity missed by government to set an infrastructure skills strategy at a cross-Whitehall level. However, the government’s green paper on industrial strategy identifies infrastructure as a key industrial sector with an “acute and urgent” skills shortage providing hope that this pressing issue will receive the dedicated effort it deserves.

When faced with a skills shortage it is often easy to jump on recruiting more workers into infrastructure as the obvious solution – but there is much which could be done to develop our existing workforce first. Reducing over-bespoke training (e.g. specialist engineering roles), embracing more modern methods of construction and improving the mobility of workers between sectors present opportunities to make great strides towards developing the skilled resources we already have.

The UK’s decision to leave the EU will have a profound effect on the way the industry sources labour. As a sector already struggling to meet demands for both skilled and non-skilled labour, Brexit is likely to add to existing wage inflation pressures.

Despite government assurances that businesses and industry will be consulted about labour requirements and talk of a transition period after March 2019, the uncertainty around free movement of labour is unlikely to be resolved any time soon, leaving the industry unable to effectively plan when faced with multi-year programmes and procurement frameworks.

It remains to be seen whether any future trade deals with individual countries and potential access to their labour markets will offset lower skills imports from Europe.


As an industry, we must ensure that commitments to and improvements in productivity are realised.


The pipeline of infrastructure work in the UK has never been stronger; neither has cross-party commitment to infrastructure spending. However, committing to fund projects is often easier than coordinating the skills resources necessary to deliver them and there is much that the UK infrastructure industry must do to tackle the skills and capacity gap in conjunction with industry bodies, the government and the education sector.

While we are faced with a critical skills crisis we must not be overwhelmed and instead do what we can as an industry to make a change. The high-profile mega projects the industry will deliver are both a challenge but also a highly public opportunity to address the often outdated view of the sector. We should use the platform they give us to challenge the perceived attractiveness of the sector and show what an innovative and exciting industry we have.

Collectively we can achieve this in multiple ways - this might take the form of inspiring local school students through the technology-led and innovative ways we work, to uniting together as an industry to ensure that the sector reaps as much benefit as possible from the industrial strategy green paper and other future government plans.