The potential benefits of HS2 are abundantly clear. From the opportunity it offers to rebalance the economy, to how it will revolutionise connectivity between key regional hubs, I firmly believe that parliament has made the right decision in supporting it.
However, though we have passed another crucial landmark in turning HS2 from a vision into reality there remains more that needs to be done by government, communities and industry to make sure HS2 realises its full potential.
At the High Speed Rail Industry Leaders Group we have seen the impact that high speed rail can have on economies and communities first hand and we know that preparation is key if we are to emulate and surpass the transformation high speed rail projects have catalysed across Japan, France, and China. But the social and economic benefits of HS2 will simply not materialise if we are not prepared to welcome them with open arms.
One area we must address as a matter of urgency is the skills gap across the construction, engineering and manufacturing sectors. Large scale infrastructure projects – from the Olympics to Crossrail – have encountered a shortage of young, talented engineers and construction workers in this country.
With a budget of almost £50 billion, the building and activation of HS2 will be a huge investment in the future of Britain as well as an enormous jobs’ boost. HS2 Ltd predicts up to 50,000 people will be working on HS2 at the peak of construction, the majority in the wider supply chain. More than 2,000 apprentices could also be employed in construction- related jobs on HS2 – nearly five times more than for either Crossrail or the Olympics.
Importantly, the UK rail industry is set to benefit from an ambitious programme of investment over the next seven years, with some £25 billion set to be spent on more than 200 projects across the railway engineering industry, from infrastructure enhancements and renewals to rolling stock new builds and refurbishment. This is a golden opportunity to build knowledge and expertise in our current workforce and to begin to prepare ourselves for HS2, with the National Skills Academy for Rail Engineering (NSARE), estimating 17,500 people will need to be added to the workforce to cater for increasing investment in rail infrastructure in the next five years. This growth must be managed by all parties with HS2 front of mind.
Britain lagging behind
Crucially, HS2 will bring with it two vital ingredients for skills development – significant investment coupled with long- term job opportunities.
Britain lags behind many of our European counterparts, with large employers finding it increasingly difficult to recruit a highly skilled workforce. A recent survey by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) found more than one in five un-fillable vacancies were down to a poor skills base, with the manufacturing, construction and plumbing industries most affected. The root of the predicament we now find ourselves in does of course go a long way back and the issues are varied and complex. But by working together with government, we the industry can play a key part in ensuring the framework needed to deal with these issues is developed in time to benefit HS2.
We must do more
Of course, action has already begun in earnest. The government has rightly committed to ensuring that there is a capable workforce ready to build the most ambitious rail project since Victorian times – most tangibly with a commitment to establish a new Further Education college, the first of its kind in 20 years, to specifically train a legion of engineers ready to build HS2.
Equally even at this early stage HS2 Ltd’s contractors have enabled more than 700 graduate trainees and apprentices to work on the project.
However, we must do more and it is not just central government’s responsibility to prepare itself for HS2. Local authorities, local communities, educationalists as well as businesses such as my own, across the wide multitude of sectors that will touch on HS2, must prepare themselves, and their workers.
NSARE along with many large organisations in the sector have outlined where opportunities lie and are continuously engaging with local communities to encourage growth in the sector. This is a good start.
The recent High Speed 2: Get Ready report by Lord Deighton and the HS2 Growth Taskforce also provided recommendations on how to up-skill and grow our rail and construction workforce, and equally HS2 Ltd has set out its strategy to address the shortage and ‘develop an industry that attracts and retains a diverse group of multi-talented people.’
With HS2 now edging closer these positive words must turn into actions if we are going to meet the challenges and opportunities posed by HS2.
For the industry HS2 also presents a once in a generation opportunity to address a number of imbalances. The industry continues to find it difficult to train and recruit women; HS2 can spur a step change in attitudes if presented in the right way. Equally the industry is concentrated in London and the South East; we must emulate one of the key aims of HS2 and address this regional inequality.
For high speed rail to truly make the impact we in the industry expect and demand it to, talent and skills need to be the primary focus for the next few years ensuring that Britain has the right pipeline of people to deliver HS2 on budget, on time and with a lasting legacy for British workers in the global job market.
This is a key point to remember. HS2 provides the opportunity to develop, test and showcase new technologies and industries as well as to build skills among current and future workforces. If done properly jobs will be for the long-term, and will build a bright future for Britain in an increasingly global race.
We must work together to ensure the UK makes the most out of high speed rail. Only by combining forces and expertise can we ensure we exploit all the potential benefits from high speed rail for the long-term prosperity of this country. An investment in Britain of HS2’s scale must leave a lasting positive legacy for growth, communities and workers.