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HS2: Why We Must Target Young People to Deliver Ambitious Plans

Rebekah Valero-Lee rail apprenticeships

Girls On Desk Looking At Notebook 159823

This week has brought with it an announcement we have long been poised and ready to hear. The prime minister, Boris Johnson, officially declared to Parliament that he and his government are giving the long-awaited green light to the HS2 scheme. The decision to introduce a high-speed railway between London and Leeds has been debated at length since the company of the same name – set to oversee the delivery of the project – was set up almost ten years ago.

The Prime Minister referred to yesterday’s announcement as an ‘historic choice’ which ‘took guts’, and one that – if not taken – would ‘condemn the next generation to overcrowding and standing up’, and a lack of prosperity across the country.

As talent specialists for numerous technical sectors, including rail and engineering, we welcome the decision to ‘officially’ begin construction on the high-speed line, after years of uncertainty and a lack of reassurance that it would become a reality. The move will work to carve out rewarding careers for tens of thousands of white- and blue-collar workers and open a clear pipeline to drive the next generation of engineers.

However, to achieve the true potential of HS2, focus must be immediately placed on how its supply chain will source the increased amounts of labour required to deliver the scheme, given that it is likely to come in over original budget predictions and up to seven years later than initially forecasted. 


HS2: What do we know now?

Here’s what Mr Johnson announced to the House of Commons, in a nutshell:

  • Phase 1 of HS2 (London-Birmingham) will cost between £35bn and £45bn in today’s prices
  • Phase 1 will run by the end of the decade
  • While the whole line will be built, the government is expected to undertake a review of the sections of the route that cover the North (Phase 2a, to Crewe, and 2b, to Manchester and Leeds)
  • Johnson will create ‘new delivery arrangements’ for Phase 2b of the project
  • He will appoint a Minister whose full-time job will be to oversee HS2
  • A new ministerial group will be tasked with taking strategic decisions about HS2
  • An extra £5bn has been promised to deliver local bus services and cycle routes outside London


The latest timescales for HS2 are for Phase 1 (London-Birmingham) to be delivered by 2028-31[1], and for Phase 2 (to Crewe and Wigan, then Manchester and Leeds) by 2035-40. This means the timescale initially forecasted will slip by anywhere between two and seven years since original predictions were made in August 2018, and with that comes an increased reliance on available labour.


What does it mean for the skills agenda?

As well as being dubbed a catalyst for growth by transforming connectivity and capacity between the North and South, HS2 provides the perfect platform to develop a highly-skilled workforce across numerous technical sectors.

How so? Figures released in September 2018 show that demand for construction labour during phases 1 and 2a will reach approx. 30,000 workers, peaking within the next two years. Additionally, the total number of rail specialists required to deliver Phases 1 and 2a will peak at around 6,800 during the years 2025/2026.

This is good news; construction labour is immediately available thanks to recruitment specialists like the Morson Group, who are dedicated to sourcing a skilled workforce to the major rail and infrastructure projects taking place across the country.

However, the current median age of the rail investment projects workforce is 38; for maintenance and operations activities the median age is 45, and for the rail sector, the median age is 42. This means that between 2017 and 2033 – around the time construction will begin on Phase 2 of the scheme – nearly 24,000 workers currently working in rail investment projects will reach 65, the current age for retirement. 


What does it mean for the future?

Currently, the construction sector has a significantly lower share of workers aged 16-24 – at just 9 per cent – compared to 13 per cent for all industries. With this in mind, it is absolutely essential that the government makes a promise to begin working with young people in schools and colleges at the earliest possible opportunity, to encourage more of them to enter the worlds of engineering and construction.

The rail sector is unique when it comes to its forward-thinking outlook, with £billions being invested into the industry over the next decade and beyond. But if the collective stakeholders to projects like HS2 – which include the government, UK talent specialists like ourselves and even educators helping forge the future careers of young people – do not work together to plug the insufficient skills in the market and halt the sector’s rising age profile, latter stages of the scheme will fall short and face further delays than already anticipated.  

Today’s primary school children are HS2’s future train drivers and engineers, so a double-thronged approach is needed – firstly, normalise apprenticeships, but also change young people’s perceptions of rail. Unless we make this sector aspirational to all and make plans to do so within – at most – the next couple of months, the latter stages of HS2 will be nigh on impossible to achieve.  


What next for HS2?

The Prime Minister has made clear his intentions for Phase 1 and 2a of the HS2 scheme, meaning contractors can now start to make long-established plans to deliver the project.

What should be at the forefront of everyone’s minds for the foreseeable and long-term future is how we will source enough talent to meet the increased labour demands this infrastructure requires, for what could be 20 more years. Current labour demands vs supply, together with multiple economic, social, political and environmental factors, already pose risks to HS2’s delivery timeline, and unless steps to plug the skills gap are mapped out with immediate effect, today’s ‘historic choice’ may truly become so, condemning the younger generation to more than just overcrowding. 


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