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21 November 2016

Heathrow expansion will broaden our horizons

Investment in national infrastructure will lead to mass employment opportunities, according to David Blunkett

By David Blunkett

Finally, the Government has given a greenlight to Heathrow expansion.  This project, along with the Thames Tideway Tunnel, Crossrail 2 and HS2 will herald a new spirit of growth and development not seen in this country since Victorian times.

To 16-year-olds starting to look at career opportunities today, this push for infrastructure growth could be transformational for their future careers.

Over the next few years, they will have the opportunity to gain apprenticeships and secure jobs in several of those projects.  In 10 to 15 years they could be part of the most advanced workforce in the world, sought after by projects across the globe looking for the level of experience that UK infrastructure projects will provide over the coming decade.

The job of the Heathrow Skills Taskforce, which I chair, is to ensure this vision becomes a reality and that Heathrow is at its core. Our strategy will ensure Heathrow’s expansion addresses areas of current unemployment in London and the South East.  But it must do much more than this.  We need to ensure a legacy of skills creation that will deliver UK-wide inclusive economic growth, employment and infrastructure improvements for decades ahead.

As a former Secretary of State for Education and Employment, this long-term vision is particularly important to me.  I joined the Taskforce as Chair precisely because I have seen too many lost opportunities where expensive projects build up their teams, and then leave them to waste. We must ensure all our large-scale infrastructure projects deliver benefits beyond their individual construction phases.

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This entails driving such projects together, to dovetail time tables for training, recruitment and employment and for the benefit of small and medium sized companies across the country. 

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I’m very pleased to count on the experience of the 13 members of the Skills Taskforce, drawn from the fields of employment, education and skills, and youth social action. We will be advised by additional representatives from education organisations, who will ensure our recommendations are consistent with existing curriculums and programmes.

Having had our inaugural meeting at the end of October, the Taskforce is now charting the number of infrastructure projects under way or scheduled to be delivered across the UK. Through collaboration with these projects, we can maximise the effectiveness and reach of our skills and apprenticeship programmes.  We can learn from projects which are seeing success: like Thames Tideway and Crossrail 1 which offered substantial routes to apprenticeship training.  

Without this holistic approach, I believe the delivery of these projects is at risk. Instead of building a new kind of workforce together, lack of cooperation will lead us to compete over a limited  and shrinking pool of skilled workers.

Already, there is ever-widening skills gap in STEM subjects, and a severe shortage of UK candidates in fields like engineering. Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce research released earlier this year found Heathrow expansion would require a 25 per cent increase in UK construction workers alone.  

Working together, we can also ensure investments in the UK workforce avoid overheating certain parts of our economy and country. A decentralised approach to procurement will be key in spreading the regional benefits of each infrastructure project.  

In Heathrow’s case, 95 per cent its procurement spending will be with the British supply chain, 60 per cent of which will be outside of London. Heathrow will engage early with its supply chain to bring skills and apprenticeship opportunities to regional procurement hubs, where suppliers will manufacture, pre-assemble and consolidate components critical to the expansion project. This will ensure young people across the UK benefit from Heathrow’s investments.

Delivering infrastructure projects of such a scale and of such importance as Heathrow expansion will not be easy. In Heathrow’s case, the major demand for employment will be in 2020/21 which requires urgent action to ensure that measures are in place to turn aspiration into meaningful results. This clearly will be followed by a whole range of employment possibilities way beyond construction and civil engineering.

Getting this right is a challenge post Brexit which we cannot afford to duck. All those with positive ideas to turn good intentions into practice will be welcome to contribute, whether or not they are not in agreement with the go-ahead for the third runway.

In fact, Heathrow is one the UK’s largest single site employers, a thriving economy of its own where exporters, businesspeople and travelers meet. Labour requirements will not end when the first plane lands on the new runway – we need to build the workforce that will run the UK’s hub airport, its biggest port by value, for decades to come. Our Taskforce will aim to deliver that.