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The construction sector bounces back with Emma Antrobus, Institution of Civil Engineers

8 min

As the Coronavirus pandemic forced ‘normal’ working life to ground to a halt, the construction sector, by and large, continued to operate. The question of Health and Safety measures, including the wearing of masks and social distancing on sites, was a hot topic in April – particularly the question of whether construction was a ‘key worker’ sector. Now, with uncertainty over funding for major projects, addressing a historic skills shortage, and adapting to new working practices, the construction sector will need to be agile in the future. Quadrant Transport sits down with Emma Antrobus, north west director at the Institution of Civil Engineers, to find out more

On the railways, construction and maintenance works to continue transporting those key workers around the country was vital in ensuring the country could manage and effectively respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. No more was this prevalent than with the Institution of Civil Engineers, where, as north-west director Emma Antrobus tells Quadrant Transport, the status quo has – for the most part – remained.

“It’s a very confusing time,” Antrobus said. “We’re trying to do as much as we can, in terms of asking the questions around what does the future hold for us? There are probably more questions there than answers, currently. Having said that, a lot of our engineers have not stopped working.

“There are still workmen on site, and I think it is more a question about: where do we go from here?”

Those questions about the next steps for the rail construction sector may have been answered to some extent by government announcements in recent weeks. A £600m commitment to the electrification of the TransPennine route announced at the end of June signals at least a partial commitment from government to investment in major transport projects – and, elsewhere in the UK, connectivity investments in The Midlands build confidence in the industry that major projects such as HS2 will plough on in spite of forecasted economic downturn. Should multi-billion pound transport projects continue to be Plan A, in the face of an uncertain future?

Emma Antrobus, north-west director, ICE

“To be honest, there should not be any pause with moving forward with a modern railway,” Antrobus said. “We have capacity issues right across the country, that need to be addressed. The very nature of rail projects is that they are not delivered overnight. We are talking about infrastructure that is going to be in place probably for 100 to 200 years. We’re still using 200-year-old railways now.”

For the north-west director, the investment signifies much more than just infrastructure development: it is an investment in society for the coming centuries. Emma said: “What you need is consistency. Pipelines of projects that chip away at the problems because new problems arrive.

“We are not talking about immediacy. We are talking about planning for the future that is a very long way away. We do not know whether it’s going to be the right thing for 100 years’ time, but the forecasting will only tell us so much. That whole idea of stop-starting, those announcements around the TransPennine Electrification, that has been on and off the cards several times.”

Emma Antrobus will be a keynote speaker at Peloton’s Bouncing Back 2020 seminar, taking place on 11 August at 09.30am. Click here to register for free!

A reskilling silver lining

Emma’s lamentation of the stop-start funding pipeline UK – and particularly northern – railways have faced in recent decades highlights another key issue facing the construction sector, particularly that of the dearth of budding engineers and STEM-skilled workers coming through the ranks.

What you need is consistency. Pipelines of projects that chip away at the problems because new problems arrive

Though vacancies have fallen in the short-term, historically, the sector’s skills shortage has been evident: an MPA report in March noted that in a survey of 250 engineering professionals, 37 per cent identified the skills deficit as having the biggest impact on their sector. From ICE’s perspective, can waves of redundancies and unemployment in other sectors such as hospitality and the arts translate to a STEM-focussed reskilling surge, filling shortages in construction? “As an institution, a lot of what we do is about getting engineers professionally qualified,” Emma explained. “So, we have a lot of resources that allow people to look at what civil engineers do. And it starts with school-level, STEM activities, that teaches them, and people can download content to do with their kids.

One of the key major projects in the coming years, the arrival of HS2 at the Interchange station will be connected to Birmingham International Airport via an automated people mover, and is primed to be the catalyst behind the UK Central Hub area, including the 140-hectare Arden Cross site, supporting 5,000 new homes and 70,000 new and existing jobs

“But equally for those people coming out of education, who were thinking they were going in one direction, but all of a sudden they’re going in another, you can see it as an opportunity to change track.”

“Pipelines with consistency,” Emma notes, are the key to having an effective workforce stream due to firms having greater confidence in current and upcoming projects; but notes that a consistent funding pipeline does not match with the “up and down” nature of political and funding cycles for transport projects. “You want to see much more consistency about pipelines, and I think some of the local decision-making, original decision-making, will really help that,” Emma said.

“I think that certainty that I already talked about allows for planning. And the companies can actually say ‘we’re going to need these people’. In times of difficulties, there are always opportunities – but you have to be able to find them and put yourself forward for them.”

Health & Safety – lessons learnt?

Though measures such as temperature screening, the wearing of PPE and face masks, and enforcing social distancing have been installed to varying extents on sites around the UK, men in skilled construction have bore the brunt of the disease more so than in other sectors. Data compiled by the ONS highlighted that men in construction had the highest number of deaths recorded of any career group, standing at 500 deaths on 25 May, with the third highest rate of deaths per 100,000 people. In mental health, calls to the Lighthouse Club’s Construction Industry Helpline for mental health support were up by a quarter at the beginning of April.

I think the difficulties of the last four months have meant that people are much more communicative, because they’ve had to be

From the north-west’s perspective, in protecting its workers, how has the sector fared? “I think there’s an awful lot to celebrate in terms of what we already had in place,” outlined Emma. “I’ve not come across any issues, but yes, things like trying to socially distance is difficult. The ability to wear masks is quite difficult as well – because of the need to communicate on what can be quite noisy sites.”

The ICE regional director highlighted the “stronger sense of collaboration” between stakeholders on keeping site members safe, something she would like to see more of in future operations. “I think if we collaborated more than having this traditional client, contractor, and sub-contractor hierarchy, we could move forward much more efficiently.

“But actually, some of the principles need to permeate down – I think the difficulties of the last four months have meant that people are much more communicative, because they’ve had to be.”

Flexibility in the future

One of the resounding outcomes of the Coronavirus pandemic has been the prodigious shift towards working from home practices in a variety of sectors around the UK. The knock-on effect of plummeting passenger numbers on commuter networks will lead to a major re-think of how travel is provided in towns and cities around the UK, particularly in relation to smart ticketing and flexible travel, to respond to this new, agile working culture.

Emma highlighted how the pandemic has shone a light on the “silo mentality” of commercial contracts for bus and rail franchising, leading to less collaboration, impacting the end user as a result. “When you look at Metrolink in Manchester and every light rail system, you see their patronage absolutely fall off a cliff, and they need financial support,” she outlined. “I think we need to be very much more alive to the flexibility that people will want. That ability to cycle, walk, use public transport, use personal cars, in a way that is a much more choice-based, holistic approach.

“This very much silo mentality of commercial contracts for franchising of rail and bus has meant less collaboration. What we’ve seen over the last four months is much more collaboration putting passengers first.”

Ultimately, for the ICE regional head, transport providers responding to these changing working practices, encouraging active travel, and fostering a healthier work-life balance is critical for the country to effectively bounce back in its economic and social recovery from the pandemic. “The health of the country has got to be paramount – I’m not saying profit is bad, but it can’t come first, can it? In the question of health versus profit.

“We need systems that actually work for the end user, much better, that allows choice, that allows that financial flexibility.”