Conference 2021: The future of the street works workforce panel discussion

16 Dec

The future of the street works workforce: training and skills for ‘on the tools’ or ‘on the mice’?

Watch the full session here

Malcolm Johnston, Non-Executive Director of Street Works UK, chaired the afternoon panel on day 1 – The future of the street works workforce: training and skills for ‘on the tools’ or ‘on the mice’? The session was a deep dive into how the street works industry needs to adapt to a changing world in both its leadership and on the ground.

Discussion focused on the key areas in the street works workforce that need to be addressed to ensure that the industry is fit for future practices, and how leadership needs to adopt its current approach to hiring and training to address present and upcoming skills shortages.

Each panellist was given the opportunity to talk to their expertise on the issue. Kicking off the session, Malcolm Johnston discussed his view that there is a stark difference in attitude to skills and training between UK and much of Europe, citing data that the UK spends significantly less than the European average on this. Malcolm also referenced the disparity between training in large companies and SMEs, highlighting studies that have shown staff are twice as likely to be trained within a year at a large company compared to at an SME.

Mark Playforth identified that while the lack of skilled workers had always been an issue in the industry, it seems to have become worse int the last decade. Delving deeper into this, Mark highlighted that there doesn’t appear to be a standard in the UK as to what a skilled operative looks like, and that it varies between different companies. To address the skills shortage, he focused on the need to attract school leavers. He called for the industry to encourage them and show the positives that can come from working in street works, which is something that he felt is currently absent.

David Capon highlighted the need for the industry to be more united, and that it needs to work together to solve issues instead of taking sides, and that on issues of skills people can’t sit back and assume it is somebody else’s problem to deal with. He referenced how both Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic have exposed fragilities within the street works industry and shown areas that could be improved, including on skills.

In particular, he discussed how it is often difficult for the industry to understand how somebody does a bad job and how it can be rectified, and that while it is a highly technical industry, the simple things such as discipline on site can be a problem. As well as this, David touched on the need for technology to facilitate training, particularly during the pandemic, and highlighted the electronic accreditation process as an area where progress has been made.

To address skills and training issues, David Latham said we should be taking the first step towards a street works institution, similar to the Institute for Highways Engineers, with some kind of street works supervisor registration. As well as this, he said highways authorities should ensure true parity amongst their workforces, as if people are working in the same environment they should have same standards. Finally, he called on leaders within the industry build a culture where training is seen as an investment and needs to be embedded, not where it is seen as an inconvenience or a disruption to work.