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


Young people must help bridge the digital skills gap

More than four fifths of employers say they believe that IT skills are more important to their business today than they were two years ago but unless young people can offer the digital skills needed to keep pace, the shortfall will only increase.

The growing digital skills crisis in the UK is getting the recognition which will hopefully see education and business join together and address a mismatch which has been allowed to grow too wide. With a government-commissioned surveypredicting that almost 90% of new jobs require digital skills to some degree – and cyber security top of the list – any intervention to encourage more people to learn the right skills can’t come soon enough.

This may seem surprising when so many of us witness the ease with which today’s Generation Z – often referred to as digital natives – find their way around digital technology. But while digital interfaces merely require their intuition, the tech skills required by businesses have not grown with them.

It needs to start with schools
“Addressing the digital skills crisis starts with our education system,” states the  science and technology committee in its recent Digital Skills Crisis report which found that only 35% of computer teachers in schools have a relevant degree and 30% of the required number of computer science teachers haven’t been recruited.

The demands for skills such as coding, information communication technologies and managing digital information are now starting to be addressed through campaigns and collaborations between education and business by organisations such as The Tech Partnership. Cue a suite of new apprenticeships and ambassador networks.

Informal learning could spark an interest
And although the new computing curriculum, launched in 2014 and aimed at addressing the shortfall, is yet to create a real impact, if you work with young people you’ll be well aware of the benefits to them of investing some extra-curricular time taking part in one of the many opportunities available to develop their digital skills. Coding clubs offering fun and free practical activities such as Code Club for 9-11 year olds are dotted around the country, often taking place in local libraries, and there are events taking place in lots of locations where young people can dip into ‘have a go’ hands-on sessions. In fact sparking a young person’s interest for any STEM-related subject could create a new passion potentially leading to a future career.

Shortage occupations
Employers are expected to need up to 745,000 additional employees with digital skills next year which could mean we see a review of the qualifying requirements for ‘shortage occupation’ IT jobs allowing businesses to get critical digital skills from abroad. This seems perplexing when you learn that 13% of computer graduates are still unemployed six months after leaving university but the devil really is in the detail.

Of course the digital revolution isn’t over yet… Driverless technologies, robotic engineering, big data, the Internet of Things, 5G and other wireless technologies not to mention AI (artificial intelligence) will only see the challenges increase. And the demand for skills doesn’t only affect businesses in a few sectors – every sector needs digital skills to help drive productivity, and young people will be the key to bridging this skills gap.

1 Science and Technology Committee Digital Skills Crisis report