Roundtable: Setting off a skills chain reaction


Client collaboration and stronger pipelines of work are key to solving an intractable workforce recruitment problem that continues to plague the industry, finds Mark Smulian

On the panel

  1. Sylvia Cashman, senior manager, Mace Group
  2. Richie Hales, director, Turner & Townsend
  3. Ruth Hutchison, communications for major projects, Sellafield Ltd
  4. Elliott Murphy, junior manager, Balfour Beatty, Vinci, Systra Joint Venture and HS2
  5. David Nash, director of strategy and policy, Engineering Construction Industry Training Board
  6. Michelle Russell, senior manager, National Skills Academy for Rail
  7. Justin Phillips, bids director, Clancy
  8. Andy Sharples, projects director, Sellafield Ltd
  9. Jim Watts, director, Wates Group
  10. Ben Vogel, deputy editor, Construction News (chair)
  11. Melissa Zanocco, head of programmes, Infrastructure Client Group

Roundtable sponsor: Sellafield

Solutions to the construction industry’s perennial skill shortages tend to be thin on the ground, but has Sellafield Ltd found some? Circumstances have forced leaders on the giant nuclear-decommissioning project to think creatively about attracting the skilled labour needed for a decades-long pipeline of work located on the edge of the Lake District National Park. A recent Construction News roundtable event provided the opportunity to discuss this and consider whether Sellafield's learnings could be more widely applied. It was also a chance to hear how the predictability of its future work encourages collaboration and confidence to invest in the workforce.

“There’s no one-path-fits-all, and we have learned to open diverse pathways and opportunities that balance academic progression with local, operational training”

Andy Sharples, Sellafield

Sellafield has a £7bn pipeline of work over the next 20 years – and decades beyond that – building facilities to safely store nuclear waste as the site is decommissioned, projects director Andy Sharples explained. As such, it needs people who are skilled in many disciplines – not all requiring nuclear expertise – sourced from a highly competitive labour market in which it finds itself up against projects such as Hinkley Point C and HS2. Sellafield has some 12,000 employees.

The panel heard that it has set up a Programme and Project Partners model as a 20-year vehicle for project delivery with KBR (integration), Jacobs (design and engineering), Morgan Sindall Infrastructure (civils construction management) and Altrad Babcock (process construction management). Sharples told the panel: “That is just a framework; what you need is people in the right place at the right time. Because it’s people who make projects, it’s not processes and systems. I think organisations like ours have been guilty of trying to fix everything through process rather than creating the right culture to achieve the right outcome in an environment where everybody wins.

“We brought the PPP partnership in to do just this, and it now has a diverse team of 1,400 people and has brought in 10 long-term partners working alongside Sellafield on an incredible pipeline of nationally important projects.”

The long pipeline of work, he explained, gives contractors a sufficient amount of future business to invest in training apprentices and hiring skilled people, since contractors know they can work at Sellafield for a long time and need not fear staff will leave after a few years when a project ends. This gives stability both to contractors and employees.

“We’re still seeing a very heated market out there and… there’s still more work than people to do it”

Andy Sharples, Sellafield

Melissa Zanocco, head of programmes at the Infrastructure Client Group, said potential new entrants to the construction industry are looking to get more out of their work on a personal level than in times gone by. “I think [a] focus on outcomes matters because that’s really inspirational to people at school and university,” she said. “So if you’re saying to people ‘come and do this amazing thing’, and ‘this is going to help to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals’, that’s something that makes them think ‘wow, I want to go and do that’.”

Zanocco said the skills needed were no longer largely confined to people with a civil engineering degree or traditional sector qualifications, and that these routes could be supplemented by “people that might not have considered careers in this industry being inspired by vision and outcomes”.

Justin Phillips, bids director at Clancy, agreed. “There is now the opportunity to have long-term visibility of what your career in the industry might be,” he said. “Whereas before, it was [geared towards] a project that might last two or three years, but then what would you do next? If you’re able to employ people on a longer-term basis, you can invest in them, get better productivity and give people a future they can buy into.”

Focus on training

Sharples said Sellafield has innovated what it offers employees in terms of opportunities to learn and develop and also carve out a long-term career in one of the most attractive places to live in the UK.

“We’ve got a UK-leading ‘Project Academy’ as well as a project-management apprenticeship scheme,” he said. “Some of our highest performers have gained their training and qualifications on home soil, and this has also helped us to be more inclusive and diverse.”

Sharples went on to say that Sellafield’s recruitment challenges have been exacerbated post-pandemic, however: “We have adapted our working culture at Sellafield to be more agile, flexible and inclusive, so that we can attract the best. There is always a balance to be struck when you’re an operational site that needs to be safely managed at all times, and this offers its challenges and opportunities.”

Participants noted that the industry faced a ‘demographic time bomb’ of older workers leaving and too few new ones replacing them.

Starting with schools

Elliott Murphy, junior manager at the Balfour Beatty, Vinci and Systra joint venture for HS2, also saw the benefits of thinking long term, in his case by fostering an interest in the industry among school pupils. The JV works with the London  boroughs of Brent, Ealing, and Hammersmith and Fulham, and has started to look to schools to develop the key skills it needs, in particular through science, technology, engineering and mathematics. He said: “We’re going to see, can we build our capability and upskill that pipeline even before they get to us, by working with the schools?”

Michelle Russell, senior manager at the National Skills Academy for Rail, is a former teacher and said that, in her experience, secondary school pupils “are looking for careers, and they want purpose. Equally, they want to earn a million pounds, and you have to find that middle ground.”

She said the structure of the education system is a problem because it focuses on performance tables and academic achievement. “I’m not saying take away standards, but do remove the focus on getting children to pass exams,” Russell said. “They do their exam in May or June, and by the time they get the results, they can’t remember what they’ve done and they certainly can’t apply it. And that doesn’t help any of us recruiting for the future.”

CN deputy editor Ben Vogel, who chaired the panel, asked whether T levels offered the potential to bridge the gap between academic and skills study. “They’re pitched against an A level so they’re going to fail because A level is seen as the gold standard,” Russell replied. “There’s no one-path-fits-all, and we have learned to open diverse pathways and opportunities that balance academic progression with local, operational training.”

David Nash, director of strategy and policy at the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board (ECITB), thought client attitudes towards training would benefit from being more flexible, and that they could collaborate to offer long-term training across a number of firms.

He said: “We often talk to small contractors who will say they have apprenticeship programmes but they can only place a given number on site, as clients will question the ratio of inexperienced hires to experienced ones.”

Client foresight

Nash said the ECITB was seeking routes into the industry for underrepresented groups and had developed programmes for young, disadvantaged students “who otherwise may not have been offered an apprenticeship, possibly because they didn’t have the requisite English and maths”.

He added: “The key is having a client with foresight and hopefully that certainty of being able to say, ‘here’s the programme of work, and it may not be you’re going to have contracts here for five years, but you could offer training and career prospects within a regional cluster of clients’.”

Zanocco said members of her group had discussed how to retain people even if salaries were not comparable to other industries: “When somebody has reached a certain level in their career, it’s like, what can you offer them? Could they have a secondment to another firm to widen experience?”

Ruth Hutchison, communications lead for projects at Sellafield, explained how the site worked with even the smallest firms to promote training. In one case, a 16-year contract was let to a very small local firm; on the strength of this, it recruited local people, one of whom left university to join it; the other had faced employment barriers. “Now both are thriving and they’re going to be working on one of the biggest projects in the UK, she said.

Phillips wondered whether the industry really valued trades such as carpentry “versus someone with a degree in engineering and digital things?”

Richie Hales, a director of Turner & Townsend, responded: “Fewer and fewer people are seeing the trades and getting a really good understanding of what it is to work on sites. We’ve just taken on four graduate apprentices and recognise getting them experience on site is challenging. I think it’s about partnerships – clients coming together to offer this.”

Sylvia Cashman, a senior manager at Mace Group, agreed that clients should collaborate to offer training and recalled her experience on the Heathrow third-runway project. “We were trying to set up apprenticeships with supply chain companies but they might not be there long enough for complete apprenticeships,” she said.

“So we thought if they recruit somebody to do an electrical apprenticeship, for example, but that company was only on site for 18 months, could that individual then take that apprenticeship on in another organisation?”

Watts also urged a collaborative approach: “Gone is the time when we can just compete with each other for skilled labour, because of wage inflation.”

Ideas were floated about making the industry’s workplaces more attractive. Phillips said: “In a lot of client infrastructure, you’ve got 1940s, 50s, 60s buildings, and that’s not very enticing to anyone. So we all need to invest in a decent environment.”

Jim Watts, a director of Wates Group, noted: “The next generation has a very different cultural outlook and it’s causing us to redesign all of our site offices to be open-plan and have flexible working. We can make our industry a more attractive place to work. The problem is continuity if you are only able to plan two or three years ahead, but if you can see a longer pipeline, you’ve got a better chance to invest.”

Meanwhile, Sharples said a sharp focus on inclusion and diversity has helped performance at the site. “Historically, we had a male-dominated workforce, but that has changed hugely and we’re now seeing a much better balance in our projects, which helps us to perform,” he said.

Decarbonisation appeals

Vogel asked the panel whether the opportunity to work on decarbonisation projects might attract a younger workforce. Zanocco felt it would and thought fears that recent political changes might stall decarbonisation work were unfounded. She said many clients had decided to carry on and they “try not to be influenced by politics. We were worried that they would say ‘we’ve now got less investment’, but they’re going to keep moving forward with decarbonisation because it does make economic sense, as well as being good for the planet.”

Sharples added: “I think we’ve just got to adapt as a sector, to support the work we want, because the worst thing for us all – clients and contractors alike – is a reduction in pipeline. We’re still seeing a very heated market out there and even with the stopping of HS2 [phase 2] there’s still more work than people to do it.

“That is something we need to think about collectively and differently, and I don’t think you can solve it in isolation or as an individual trying to solve it for their individual organisation because then you just have people moving around the industry, which forces the prices higher.”

Collaboration on training and the ability to offer longer-term work pipelines will require the industry to change its traditional approaches. It may, though, finally resolve a decades-old skills problem. 

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