What can we learn about future skills needs from HS2?

train speeding through countrysideControversy aside, HS2’s potential to create thousands of jobs is a good way of talking about future skills needs. The HS2 skills, employment and education strategy announced today sets out not just the challenges for the project itself but the potential impact in terms of the skills legacy for the future of the UK.

Having written about the opportunities potential around HS2 in recent LMI resources produced for the National Careers Service in the West Midlands, high speed rail in the UK has become a bit of an ‘LMI interest’ for me and is worth considering when talking to young people or adults about future career possibilities, especially if in one of the areas it cuts through.

One of the reasons I like to talk about HS2 is to draw attention to the wide range of roles involved in the project – it’s always good to encourage young people and parents to see beyond the obvious. Another is that it has the potential to create opportunities for many people to upskill – the growing need for people to continually develop their skill sets throughout their working lives will be the future of work. I also just like all the numbers.

Whatever your personal thoughts on HS2 – the ongoing cries for it to be scrapped continue – it’s one of the world’s largest infrastructure projects and the number of jobs it’s already supporting and is likely to support includes:

  • 30,000 jobs in construction and rail engineering activities by 2021/22
  • 15,000 jobs expected to be supported each year between 2019/20 and 2023/24
  • 100 apprenticeships currently increasing to 2,000 for the whole project
  • 25,000 jobs forecast for the early 2030s

It’s worth knowing that, just as the future skills demands in the UK are going to be greater in the high skilled occupations, one third of the jobs supported by HS2 within the construction occupations are forecast to require high levels of skills (at least degree-level or equivalent).

railway lineIt’s true that the large majority of jobs will be in the civil engineering field – the construction of the tunnels, structures and stations for example each account for around one fifth of all HS2 jobs. But currently around a quarter of the UK’s rail engineers are predicted to retire in the next ten years and as well as critical skills shortages in engineering, we have an ongoing skills shortage in the UK for many roles in construction (not all of them skilled trades I hasten to add!). This presents a challenge for HS2 contractors and the supply chain but also provides real opportunities for those who have existing skills that could transfer to the types of roles required.

The strategy is supporting developing a diverse talent pool which includes providing training and employment for those not currently working such as structured work placements. And anyone considering embarking on training for a construction trade or technical role should be encouraged by the expectation that in the future, as well as vacancies arising to replace those who leave the engineering, manufacturing and construction sectors, new roles within the low carbon industries will be calling on similar skill sets.

woman looking at two computer screensBut it would be a mistake to focus solely on construction roles when thinking about the opportunities available. HS2 is a 21st century project requiring 21st century skills. It has high skills demands in roles such as planning, law, sustainability, environment and ICT – many roles already filled at the head office in Birmingham – and its graduate programme reflects current and future needs. The need for those with digital skills should not come as a surprise – we should be preparing young people for the prediction that 90% of new jobs created in the future are expected to require digital proficiency at some level. Digital expertise within HS2 is required during the design and construction phase and also once the service is up and running. And this translates to the transport sector as a whole which increasingly needs people who are digitally competent, whether that’s data handling, problem solving, visualising or communicating.

The strategy also sets out a planned Education Programme focused around STEM which includes the development of curriculum materials and the online provision of careers advice and guidance – we shall await to see what shape and form that might take!

Applications for the next wave of apprenticeships at the National College for High Speed Rail (Birmingham and Doncaster) opens this autumn although opportunities in the supply chain can appear at any time. What next? Keep an eye out for opportunities on the HS2Careers website for more on the types of roles and the graduate/apprenticeship programmes, find out how it might impact on your region in terms of the knock on effect on jobs (business, retail, leisure for example) and look out for local information on employers in your area which might be involved and have opportunities coming up. Controversial maybe but perhaps a useful talking point?

HS2 skills, employment and education strategy


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