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Philip Ball: Finding the next generation of ground engineers

Britain is building again and the increase in large developments and landmark infrastructure projects are an undoubted boost for the British ground investigation and ground engineering industry. But the increasing workload is making the industry’s shortage of skilled field operatives even more apparent, and if the issue is not addressed urgently, it could have a serious long-term impact on the sector.

philip ball

Philip Ball is group technical director at Socotec

Historically, the industry has recruited new field operatives through established networks, personal contacts and local communities. Established practitioners introduced friends, family and local associates to their firms, creating clusters of expertise around the country. This is evident in places such as Doncaster and Gateshead, where the presence of industries such as coal mining often leant itself to a local concentration of experienced drillers with skill-sets easily transferred to ground investigation and geotechnical work. The armed forces also have a proud tradition of training some of the best field operatives currently working in the UK.

In recent years there has been a shift in the demographics with fewer joining our sector. Standard career paths have changed, and young people are now far more likely to go to university than ever before, with 49% entering higher education according to the latest government figures, compared to less than 15% in the 1970s. The growth of higher education and the focus, on a national level, on the development of digital skills has meant that vocational education and practical training have perhaps not enjoyed the attention they deserve. In a competitive environment for attracting young talent, a drilling apprenticeship will not have the same glamour as a university degree but may provide a good career nonetheless.

Accessibility to the industry is also an issue. Where would you go to learn the trade of ground investigation or ground engineering if you wanted to start a new career tomorrow? It’s not as simple as visiting a job centre, or turning up at a site. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly difficult to get experience on site, particularly in specialist sectors, without the requisite Construction Skills Certification Scheme (CSCS) card, National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) and any number of bespoke client schemes. It creates a vicious circle where keen, young workers can’t gain first-hand experience of the job in order for them to decide if it is the right career for them.

The upshot of this is that, with a declining intake of young people and an aging workforce, there is a depleted pool of experienced operatives. Couple this with a buoyant market across all of infrastructure, and it becomes clear how serious the issue has become. Most in our profession would say that it takes five years or more to learn how to become a driller of the highest standard. Therefore, if we take action now, the benefits can help us meet the targets set out in the government’s ambitious National Infrastructure Delivery Plan 2016–2021. Underpinned by a refreshed 2017 National Infrastructure Pipeline, the plan sets out details of over £460bn of planned infrastructure investment across the public and private sectors. Looking across the next 10 years, the government project total public and private investment in infrastructure to be around £600bn with a total pipeline of nearly 700 projects across the UK.

So how can the industry attract a new wave of talent to become the ground engineers of the future?

The typical university degree now costs £27,000, and there is growing evidence that the prospect of being saddled with debt is becoming less appealing to school-leavers. The record numbers of unfilled university places this year, with nearly 30,000 course vacancies at the beginning of this year’s clearing programme, suggest there is an opportunity for the industry to make vocational training a more attractive proposition for young people. The prospect of a rewarding career in an in-demand sector, while being able to “earn as you learn,” has clear appeal that can be capitalised on. In addition, the new Apprenticeship Levy that came into effect in April opens up a new range of opportunities for employers, and enables staff to work, study and gain a university qualification without having to spend money they don’t have.

The wider industry, including employers, the associations and the government need to come together and put in place a standardised training programme, with on-the-job experience and clear career progression at its core. The establishment of a centralised academy, ensuring rigorous training standards, and exposure to the latest practices and techniques would be the best way to achieve this. Combining the benefits of a structured learning environment, with practical on the job training can ensure a steady flow of new blood into the industry and create a talent pool capable of meeting market demand for years to come.

The few apprenticeship places available at the moment are excellent for upskilling but currently these are really only suitable for operatives that have received a certain level of experience. The academy route would allow novices to achieve their basic qualifications and study a common set of core modules, while gaining invaluable on-site experience. As they progress their careers, trained operatives would be free to explore specialisms and expand their skill-sets to become more well-rounded ground engineering professionals.

It would be disappointing if it took until we arrived at a situation where major developments were being delayed before the wider industry took notice of the widening skills gap. There is momentum again in UK construction and engineering, and a lack of skilled professionals is an avoidable obstacle that could slow progress. All players in the industry need to realise that it is an issue that affects them, and not just the firms providing geotechnical-related services if we want to close the skills gap and continue the progress made in recent years, it may be time for the wider industry to return the favour and pledge its support to the future of the ground investigation and ground engineering sector.

  • Philip Ball is group technical director at Socotec

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