Without the engineering workforce, financial investment in regional powerhouses is meaningless - so where does the solution lie?
Government proposals for a Cities Devolution Bill are being positioned as laying the foundations for further economic growth by creating regional ‘powerhouses’: Councils or combined authorities with elected mayors which will get increased funding for areas such as transport, property and infrastructure.
However, funding alone won’t help build a more prosperous future for UK regions, what it needs is the skills and hard work of engineers, and nowhere is that more true than in highways.
This creates something of a problem for the UK as it currently has a significant skills shortage in engineering. This skills shortage has arisen due to a mismatch in supply and demand for engineers.
Significant investment in national infrastructure, growth in manufacturing and engineering businesses and a resurgent property industry are all placing a high demand on the skills of engineers leading to more job vacancies than there are available candidates.
Highways engineering has, of late, been particularly affected by this skills gap and addressing this has to be a priority. Without engineers to undertake these projects then the extra funding for regions is meaningless as it won’t translate into change ‘on the ground’.
The challenge facing highways engineering is that high-profile civil engineering, automotive, aerospace and infrastructure projects have traditionally been a strong draw for engineers, and in a competitive market highways engineering has at times looked like a less exciting prospect.
That however is changing. Existing projects such as TfL’s Cycle Super Highway provide exactly the type of challenging, CV enhancing project that engineers get excited about and want to be part of.
Infrastructure investment driven by regional devolution and through ongoing Government expenditure (such as plans to dual the A303 and the A1) are the highways equivalent to CrossRail and provide exactly the sort of draw that will bring engineers into the highways industry.
However waiting until plans and funding are confirmed is not enough. If regional devolution is to lead to better infrastructure and associated economic growth we need to act now to keep skilled engineers within the highways industry and encourage engineers working elsewhere to look afresh at the highways industry and build a sense of excitement about the projects being planned.
So while the Government looks at ways to give municipal administrations greater control over funding and planning, the highways and infrastructure development industry needs to focus on how it gears up to deliver these projects.
People remain the key and attracting engineers into highways engineering is critical if regional devolution is to create regional powerhouses and regional growth. We need to create as much excitement around highways reinvention as we have around the transformation of the UK’s railways. Only then will we succeed.
Simon Wilson, Head of Highways Transportation & Planning, Matchtech