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UK infrastructure plan will need ‘colossal’ skills drive

The government’s announcement of a record £650bn investment in infrastructure projects over the next decade will need to be matched by an unprecedented surge in training and recruitment, according to the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA).

A mixture of public money, private sector investment and the recruitment of more than 425,000 skilled workers is proposed to deliver the updated Infrastructure Pipeline plan published this week.

Over £30bn worth of social and economic projects are due to be launched this year, according to the Infrastructure and Projects Authority as part of an overall £200bn of work underpinning the government Build Back Better programme.

Transforming Infrastructure Performance: Roadmap to 2030’ lays out a detailed plan that could lead to a surge in new opportunities for apprentices, graduates, and experienced workers with the right skills, according to the Association.

Transport, energy, and utilities will command the largest share of the work, but there are also big plans for social and digital infrastructure between now and 2025.

BESA welcomed the updated plan as a “vote of confidence” for the sector but pointed out that the programme relies heavily on improving productivity through greater use of digital technology and innovation. Increasing use of Modern Methods of Construction will also be crucial as the projects unfold, but all of that will need to be supported by an upsurge in specific skills many of which are currently in short supply, the Association added.

“The current turmoil in our supply chains is a stark reminder of how failing to invest in training and retaining high quality people can undermine the best laid plans,” said BESA’s director of training and skills Helen Yeulet.

“The government’s infrastructure plans are extremely exciting, but will place even greater strain on the industry’s workforce unless accompanied by a colossal push to bring new blood into the sector and upskill existing workers.”

However, competition for skilled staff is expected to continue heating up over the next two to five years and will require employers in construction and engineering-related fields to look closely at what they have to offer.

“People shortages are likely to continue for an extended period,” said Yeulet. “This is not just about Brexit. We have seen a whole shift in the economy, which was accelerated by the pandemic and has led to record pay packages for people working in transport, logistics and hospitality.

“On the plus side, it has also started to redress the balance for many people in low paid jobs and means employers in our sector need to make sure what they are offering is attractive,” she added. “They need to make sure they are treating existing staff fairly and have clear career progression plans in place to entice new people into our sector with the right skills to take us forward.”

BESA said it was seeing encouraging growth in the numbers of young people interested in workplace-based training where they can work towards high level qualifications including degrees via an employer, who offers a guaranteed job at the end.

The rise of technical training including the introduction of T-levels is also helping to promote careers in building engineering and related disciplines giving further hope for the future.

“The current turmoil in labour markets should be something of a wake-up call for many employers,” said Yeulet. “There are a lot of workers who feel undervalued and treated like commodities. Investing in their professional development and rewarding them properly is the best way to demonstrate that their skills are valued.

“Building engineering will play a crucial role in rebuilding the economy and driving us towards a lower carbon future, so it is very important that we don’t undervalue our own product. Ironically, this difficult period could be a great opportunity to leave our ‘low-cost cut price’ culture behind and show clients why the whole industry deserves to be better funded and rewarded.”

Government pledges £213m towards achieving Net Zero, tackling COVID

The UK Government has announced a £213 million investment to upgrade the UK’s scientific infrastructure, with Scottish facilities to benefit also.

It says the investment will equip the UK’s leading scientists, universities and research institutes with new state of the art equipment to drive forward research that will help the country respond to major challenges, including the Covid-19 pandemic and achieving net zero carbon emissions.

The £213 million pot includes £27 million for upgrading and purchasing core equipment for the use of researchers across the UK.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) will receive a £20 million investment to upgrade campus infrastructure at its sites in Edinburgh, Oxford, Liverpool City Region and North Yorkshire. This will enable the Council to continue developing flagship projects covering a range of topics, from pre-launch satellite testing to the search for dark matter.

The STFC will receive a further £10 million for laboratory upgrades to support the scientific programmes across laboratories in Edinburgh, Oxfordshire, Liverpool, and North Yorkshire. Investments will enable projects including quantum physics with ultra-cold atoms, artificial intelligence and pre-launch satellite testing.

Medical Research Centre units in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee will share £2.8 million to buy high spec equipment such as microscopes and key computational resources to support Covid-19 research, and long-term programmes in cell biology, human genomics, and wider virology.

This will enable researchers to detect and model disease in more detail than before, helping the UK respond to Covid-19 and boosting resilience for future pandemics, as well as other global diseases, such as cancer and dementia.

£34 million will go to upgrading the UK’s digital research capabilities, enabling some of the country’s brightest minds to conduct pioneering analytical research that will help inform long term policy decisions. Urban data centres in Glasgow, Liverpool and Oxford will share more than £1 million for new hardware to pursue research that will show how Covid-19 has affected social and economic activity in different parts of the UK.

Meanwhile, the University of Essex will be backed to conduct a large-scale household survey to understand how the pandemic has affected issues such as home schooling and family relationships.

The funding package also allocates £15 million for the Capability for Collections Fund (CapCo) to renew and upgrade the most vulnerable research facilities across the UK within galleries, libraries, archives and museums. It will focus on conservation and heritage, modernising these spaces which will help serve local communities for generations.

The government says the investment will ensure the UK is the best place in the world for scientists, researchers and entrepreneurs to live and work, while continuing to attract scientific talent from across the globe.

Science Minister Amanda Solloway said: “The response from UK scientists and researchers to coronavirus has been nothing short of phenomenal. We need to match this excellence by ensuring scientific facilities are truly world class, so scientists can continue carrying out life-changing research for years to come.

“From the world’s most detailed microscopes tracking disease to super computers supporting COVID-19 research, our investment will enhance the tools available to our most ambitious innovators across Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee. By doing so, scientists and researchers will be able to drive forward extraordinary research that will enable the UK to respond to global challenges as we build back better from the pandemic.

The £213 million investment, delivered through the government’s World Class Labs funding scheme and made through seven of UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) research councils, covers investments in all disciplines from physical sciences to arts and humanities.

The funding forms part of a £300 million commitment to upgrade scientific infrastructure across the UK,  as part of the government’s ambitious R&D Roadmap published in July 2020.

New specialist law firm focuses on physical & digital infrastructure

A law firm that focuses solely on supporting companies at the intersection where the built environment, technology and people converge, has launched today. Conexus Law will work closely with clients in the connected world in both IT, telecommunications, infrastructure and datacentre construction and with engineering businesses delivering major infrastructure projects.

The company has been founded by Ed Cooke (pictured), a recognised expert in critical IT infrastructure, engineering, procurement and construction. He has previously been a partner in international law firms DLA Piper and Bird & Bird. Conexus Law is founded on the belief that its people can only deliver the best counsel if they have a strong understanding of the industry challenges and the underlying technology and processes, so every member of the team has specific industry expertise.

It will take a fresh and different approach to legal practice, in many ways mirroring the way its clients operate, using similar language and processes to enable seamless interaction, identifying key risks and creating flexible legal frameworks.

Ed Cooke, Founder at Conexus Law, said: “With growth continually outstripping predictions, the digital sector is facing major challenges around the unprecedented pace of change, lack of resources and an inability to predict what the future technology landscape will look like or demand. In addition, innovative technologists are pioneering emerging technology where there is often no legal precedent and the regulatory environment frustrates innovation. Conexus Law will deliver robust, creative and commercially pragmatic global solutions in this fast moving and unpredictable sector.”

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