Changing perceptions of careers in highways

Author: Roger Williams, Network and Asset Manager, Highways

When East Sussex County Council awarded the Costain/CH2M joint venture the £300 million contract for highway maintenance at the beginning of the year, we knew we had some ambitious aims to meet. Not only were we determined to achieve measurable value for money over the seven-year life of the contract, but we would do that by having the right skills in the right place.

This is a challenge. As I argued at the recent Highway Skills 2016 conference in London, the question of skills for this sector is becoming a hot topic. In our area, for instance, the competition for talent is fierce since the lure of working on some of the big infrastructure projects in London and elsewhere in the Southeast is strong. We are dealing with that by putting in place a robust skills framework.

First let me give some context. East Sussex has just over half-a-million people and 2,300 miles of roads. There is a very limited trunk road network with no motorways and limited dual carriageways. The road network is central to the council’s determination to unlock development opportunities because it is the county’s biggest asset. So investment in its maintenance has to be allocated both effectively and efficiently.

In other words, when you have a pound to spend where do you spend it? On filling a pothole? Fixing a street light? Improving road markings? Not only do those decisions have to be economically sensible, but they have to take into account all our customers, from residents and businesses to the council itself, supply chain partners and neighbouring boroughs.

Future-proofing the business

The skills we need to do this cover a broad spectrum, from understanding some quite substantial technical issues to managing contacts with our range of customers to building and managing relationships. When you look at the working population in highway maintenance as a whole, the vast majority are men between the ages of 45 and 65. As they head towards retirement, they will be taking a massive amount of knowledge with them. So how do we fill those gaps?

First, we have an active apprenticeship scheme. For example:

  • We have committed to employing eight apprentices every year for the lifetime of the contract. That includes between 10 and 12 for the life of the contract, with about 70% aged between 16 and 19 years-old and 30% between 20 and 25.
  • In addition, we are creating a development programme for four graduate placements a year to invest in and grow talent in the country.
  • Two of our senior management will be working with schools and colleges to provide advice and guidance.
  • We are looking at initiatives offering work experience to students at local schools and colleges.

Our apprentices will be rotated throughout the business for the first year, spending a couple of months each in the different disciplines such as design, operations, network management and the customer team. They will then go on to further study to get their qualifications.

We are also thinking laterally when it comes to recruitment. One of the most exciting parts of the job is finding someone who might be totally new to the area but obviously has the right attitude and personality to thrive. The trick is to identify them when they walk in the door. There are two questions I always ask when I interview a prospective candidate: What would your dream job be? What really motivates you? The answers to both tell you a lot about them.

One of our most successful project managers joined us after 22 years in the army and has worked his way through many different jobs in just three years. This is about growing our own talent to future-proof our business model. Yes, it’s fantastic if they have technical skills. But we can train them as long as they have that outgoing personality and quest for knowledge that gives us the base to build on.

What I love about working in this area are not just the stimulating technical challenges but also the feeling that I am contributing to the greater good. Wherever you are going and for whatever reason, everything starts and ends with the journey outside your door.