Skills to shape the future of highways
The skills the highways industry will need over the next five to ten years are evolving as organisations look to adopt more technology to improve the whole project lifecycle
With a general election just around the corner, the highways industry, which is so heavily reliant on Government funding, faces some uncertainty. Of course, the money that has already been set aside to deliver the first five-year Road Investment Strategy will ensure the current projects pipeline will continue until completion, but what investment lies beyond is yet to be confirmed and could be influenced by political change.
One thing we can be sure of is that the skills the highways industry will need over the next five to ten years are evolving as organisations look to adopt more technology to improve the whole project lifecycle. From the use of drones for surveying and planning to digital design tools like BIM and new manufacturing techniques and materials that are more efficient, resilient and cheaper to produce, there are limitless opportunities to maximise technology within engineering. But before we look to the future, what is the current state of the highways industry and the skills within it?
Confidence is relatively high - 56% of engineering professionals who work within highways believe that the sector will grow over the next 12 months (Matchtech Voice of the Workforce 2017). But this growth could be threatened by reducing budgets, which according to the survey is the sector's greatest concern.
Another well-known problem within engineering and within highways is the skills shortage; three quarters of the highways workers we surveyed recognised that there is a skills shortage in the sector. Not only are there not enough people with the skills the sector needs, but the skills the sector needs are evolving, creating a complex challenge for those responsible for planning and managing the current and future workforce for key highways projects.
But with so many transformational projects underway there are plenty of job opportunities for people with the right skills. In particular, we are seeing a continued demand for highway design engineers and construction/site engineers.
But what about the new skills that everyone is talking about?
Skills of tomorrow
Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) engineering is becoming an ever-important skill set within the highways sector in its quest to make the road network more efficient and provide a direct benefit to the UK economy. But the development of ITS requires funding as well as the people with the experience and skills to trial and implement it on the UK's road network.
The slow pace of uptake of such technology makes finding the skills the sector needs for the future a real challenge. One option is to look to other sectors that already have people with these skills. With some positive PR and continued investment in road improvement schemes, the highways sector could entice the talent it needs from the wider engineering industry. Another option is to upskill and re-train the existing highways workforce as new technology is taken up.
As the sector's pace of technology adoption increases, we will see the demand for newer, more specialist skills develop but I think it could take another 10 years before we see any huge shifts in skill set demands. In the meantime the sector should keep one eye on the future to ensure it knows what skills it needs and how to find people with them.
Joe Wilson, Department Manager - Highways, Transportation & Planning, Matchtech