The UK’s proliferation of smart motorway schemes has generated one all-important question: what if there aren’t enough skilled engineers to deliver the projects? Joe Wilson suggests that a team effort is what is needed


Following the UK Government’s announcement of the £15 billion (€17.57 billion) Road Investment Strategy (RIS1) in December 2014, the demand for skilled highways engineers across the UK is growing at a rapid pace. Some 10 per cent of this budget has been set aside to support up to 69 smart motorway schemes under construction between now and 2020.

Whilst the introduction of more smart motorways is great news for the industry, it poses an important question; does the UK have the skills to deliver these projects? Large institutions across the UK highways sector are experiencing a significant shortage of skilled and experienced engineers. Therefore, it is important to consider the skills required and where we can find the talented individuals to work on these projects now, and in the future.

Forward Thinking
The purpose of a smart motorway is to better manage and monitor traffic through the use of technology. While there are many projects in progress, they are relatively quick to complete. An alternative road-widening project would take 10 years, whereas a smart motorway project takes only 20 per cent of that time. Upgrading to a smart motorway involves creating refuge areas, strengthening the hard shoulder and installing signal gantries, which can all be done in two years. Therefore, flexible contracting engineers with experience in design, Intelligent Transportation Systems and electrical engineering are particularly in demand to help move these projects forward.

The development of smart motorways has also created a range of new roles, as a third of the workforce is focused on incorporating technology to guide traffic flow and manage environmental impact. These sit alongside the more traditional design, construction and maintenance skillsets required for major highways projects.
Finding the right talent to create these smart motorways is a challenge for employers. This challenge has been made even greater with budget cuts from Highways England, due to work carried over from 2014-15 and its restructure from the previous Highways Agency across specific area contracts.  The industry must therefore look for different ways to address this shortage, for smart motorways and for the bigger picture – the whole of RIS1. I believe there are three key areas that would enhance the smart motorways talent pool: transferable skills; education; and retention of existing engineers. These are discussed in detail below.

Transferable Skills
To tackle the problem, employers need to utilise the UK’s current skills market in its broadest sense. In the short term, they should consider hiring people from varied backgrounds, such as Mechanical and Electrical Engineers and Electrical/Cabling Engineers who have the transferable skills to pick up the work needed on these projects. Notwithstanding the general turnover of staff and engineers nearing retirement, employers within the highways industry in general will need to widen their search for skilled engineers if they are to meet workforce targets. Engineering is one of the toughest industries to recruit for; the benefits of transferable skills should not be overlooked.

Beyond this existing pool of professionals, and in the longer term, more innovative solutions within academia are needed to help future engineers develop their skillsets. More skill-based apprenticeship and degree opportunities and greater promotion of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects with younger generations can only have a positive effect. Engineering students currently spend up to four years at university predominantly studying theory. It could be argued that more needs to be done in the long-term to create opportunities for the hands-on experience engineers need for the world of work. Focusing on training and work experience, alongside the theory, can help young engineers gain practical experience throughout their education. Once qualified, they would be more desirable to employers and ultimately better prepared for the industry. Of course, work has already started on improving the quality, relevance and breadth of educational opportunities within engineering disciplines. The government is investing in apprenticeships; universities are offering a wider range of courses; and employers in industry are offering graduate placements.

Retention of Existing Engineers
While positive steps are being taken in academia, it will likely take time before graduates filter through and replenish the stock of engineers that the highways industry needs. Therefore, we must also seek to retain the valuable existing talent for completion of these projects. Upskilling current engineers for work on this new generation of schemes will play a vital role in this process. Bringing together adult apprenticeship schemes for those already working in highways and those who want to transfer but lack the accredited engineering skills could boost the talent pipeline and allow for the promotion of experienced staff into more senior roles.

One way to aid retention and support existing staff would be a reintroduction of rewards for those who achieve professional registration. This can be an effective employer strategy to encourage development and tier salaries. From an engineer’s perspective, the process allows them to take a critical view on the industry and their career, with successful registrants more likely to remain in the sector.

Looking Forward
With RIS1 and many smart motorway schemes now underway and the second Road Investment Strategy planned for implementation in 2020, the highways sector must widen its search for talent by considering transferable skills, encouraging hands-on training for engineers and looking at opportunities to upskill people already working in the industry. There is no obvious solution to the skills shortage but universities, businesses and the government must work together to ensure there are enough highways engineers fully trained and available to complete these ambitious and innovative projects.

Joe Wilson is Department Manager for Highways, Transportation and Planning at engineering recruitment specialist, Matchtech