People, not bricks and mortar, are the foundations of our infrastructure
Investment in infrastructure remains a key contributor to the UK’S economic growth. As we head further into 2018, one of the fundamental challenges we face in the UK is accelerating this investment.
In the annual update of its infrastructure and construction pipeline, published in December, the UK Government outlined over £460bn of planned infrastructure investment across the public and private sectors, including over £240bn which will occur in the next four years. The scale of this project pipeline is immense, covering the construction and maintenance of roads, railways, hospitals, power stations and schools.
Studies have consistently shown that investment in infrastructure has a strong multiplier effect, with every £1 spent on construction output estimated to generate nearly £3 in total economic activity.
But if these projects are to be built, the Government needs to ensure that the British construction industry is in the strongest possible shape and that skills developed in the UK are deployed on the largest and most technically demanding projects. We have to keep the ability to attract and retain talent in an increasingly competitive global market. People, not bricks and mortar, are the lifeblood of the construction and services sectors.
Attracting people into the industry, however, is a fundamental challenge, and we currently face a potential workforce shortfall.
Around 400,000 construction jobs were lost during the financial crisis, and the industry continues to lose around 140,000 people a year.
Against this backdrop, it is paramount that government lends its full support to ongoing initiatives by private sector employers to attract new employees. Kier and many of our industry peers are members of The 5pc Club, which seeks to increase the recruitment of apprentices, sponsored students and graduates. By joining, members strive to achieve 5pc of their workforce in “earn and learn” positions – including apprentices, sponsored students and graduates on formal training schemes – within five years. We believe membership of The 5pc Club or a 5pc commitment to apprentices and graduates should be a prerequisite to be eligible to bid for public projects.
At Kier we have taken our actions one step further through our “Shaping Your World” campaign, providing more than 200 ambassadors to visit schools to tell students about the opportunities that exist in the built environment. In addition, we believe it is important for government to work more closely with private sector construction to provide greater visibility and a more consistent time-frame on the projects within its infrastructure pipeline to ensure appropriate readiness and resourcing.
A collaborative approach to procurement is key. The recent experience of large-scale infrastructure projects, such as Crossrail, has shown that early and close involvement of private sector contractors in the initial stages of a scheme tends to result in better outcomes – not least for the taxpayer.
The preparatory work for large projects can consume extraordinary amounts of time and resources. But engaging contractors early in the process, particularly in the designing and planning stages, provides a more efficient, cost-effective and less adversarial structure. This integrated approach, combined with contractual arrangements that reflect a partnering relationship, has the effect of increasing shared responsibilities, team-working and transparency, and reducing overall project risk.
By working with government to engage and develop the next generation of construction skills, and through adopting a more collaborative approach to procurement, our industry can play its fullest possible role in meeting the UK’S infrastructure challenge and make a major contribution to long-term prosperity. Haydn Mursell is chief executive of Kier Group