Gearing up to thrive in the low carbon economy

As chief executive of CECA Scotland (Civil Engineering Contractors Association), I relish the opportunity to contribute this guest article to be shared with Esteem Training’s network of clients, partners, supervisory and management candidates and SVQ ‘graduates’. Esteem Training’s working relationship with CECA Scotland stretches back well over a decade and we share many of the same values and ambitions, including a commitment to excellence and a passion for switching engineering and construction professionals onto lifelong learning. 

Our trade body, CECA Scotland, represents the interests of 102 contractors ranging from large multinational companies engaged in flagship transport, energy, communications, waste and water infrastructure projects to rural SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) carrying out civil engineering works within their communities. CECA Scotland members deliver approximately 80% of Scotland’s £2.4 billion annual civil engineering output. They employ over 25,000 staff and help to create employment opportunities for thousands more through extensive supply chains.  

While my views will, understandably, reflect my personal opinion, I nevertheless plan to address a number of key issues that I believe apply not only to Scotland’s civil engineering sector but also to construction, architecture and design, property development, energy and utilities, and facilities management, to name but a few.

Those issues include:

  • Succession planning
  • The critical importance of upskilling our workforce to acquire the skills needed to thrive in a low carbon economy
  • The key role which training and development can play in helping us reach those goals.

Let’s start by acknowledging that climate change is the biggest challenge of our times. The world’s best scientists believe that we have less than a decade to make the transformational changes needed in order to avoid the worst consequences of climate breakdown. Civil engineering has a crucial role to play on two fronts. Firstly, contractors are determined to mitigate any further damage to the planet by investing in new technologies and ways of working to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint and doing our bit to contribute to making Scotland a Net Zero nation.

Secondly, we recognise that we can’t turn the clock back and rising temperatures will lock in some inevitable climate impacts which will force society to adapt. With more frequent flooding, shifting weather patterns and higher temperatures happening right now in Scotland, civil engineering contractors will be called upon to upgrade our national infrastructure to make sure our rail, road, water and energy systems are climate-resilient and built to last.    

Image courtesy of CECA Scotland

Reconfiguring our business models and upskilling our workforce to compete in the low carbon economy represent both a pressing priority and significant opportunity as we respond to the Scottish Government’s key targets, to be met by 2030, which include slashing our CO2 emissions by 75%. All of this will create huge growth opportunities for civil engineering firms, and the CITB (Construction Industry Training Board) has predicted a green jobs boom in construction with the sector needing to recruit an additional 26,000 workers over the next five years.

Succession planning

People are living and working longer and the experience that older workers bring to their roles is very much valued by CECA Scotland members. 

Yet the cold hard facts remain that Scotland’s aging workforce presents multiple industry sectors with challenging human resources issues which pose not insignificant threats to their ability to continue to provide uninterrupted, high quality service over the coming decades. Our engineering and construction sectors face a potential talent shortage with scores of highly-experienced professionals set to retire over the next 10 years. And we’re not alone – the NHS, teaching, financial services, management consultancy, legal and accountancy professions are all grappling with a similar dilemma.

And so the need for meticulous succession planning – perennially a core issue for business – has moved into ever-sharper focus. Allied to the pressing need to capture and pass on the rich professional expertise of the ‘baby boomer’ generation stands the growing requirement to upskill our workforce to meet the demands of Scotland’s low carbon economy – and this includes management training up to director and board level. 

Though views may differ, my personal belief is that we will need to develop new skills for this managed carbon environment – skills possibly not yet fully articulated but likely to include new supervisory and digital skills.

As a consequence, the qualifications regimes regulating these new skill sets will need to be equally nimble and adequately equipped to anticipate and address the accelerating pace of change. And therein lies the rub since, historically, we have witnessed that it can take up to three years for the necessary changes to work their way through qualifications systems. I believe we no longer have that luxury. We urgently need qualification bodies that are nimble and flexible, capable of anticipating the pace of change then evolving in order to remain relevant to the jobs we do both now and in future. That stands in sharp contrast to a number of current qualifications systems which I would argue are already obsolete. 

In short, the need has never been greater for companies large and small, as well as individual practitioners, to consistently invest in ongoing training – even lifelong learning – such that our workforce can continue to match the skills profile required to thrive in a low carbon economy.

Image courtesy of CECA Scotland

Contractors already invest heavily in training

It’s important to acknowledge that contractors already invest heavily in training due to the combination of regulatory demands and the technical requirements of their business. For example, many CECA Scotland members who contribute to the CITB as well as paying the Apprenticeship Levy will still invest in additional training for their workforce.  

The training landscape is a myriad of different providers involving colleges, private training schools and card schemes operated by employers and trade unions. Whether those cards be CPCS (Construction Plant Certification Scheme) and CSCS (Construction Skills Certification Scheme) or other – we are all aware that a plethora of such established certification systems exist.

When employers look at hiring pressures and the growing skills gap on the horizon they tell us that they need clarity on how to get more value from their investment in training. I feel that contractors need to be offered increased visibility into the availability of courses which will help them secure appropriate training for the skills they’ll need to meet their clients’ increasingly demanding criteria for achieving reductions in carbon emissions.   

The key role of training and development

I’ve touched, to some extent, on the thorny topics of Scotland’s aging workforce and the corresponding need for mentorship of younger colleagues to facilitate knowledge transfer.

Having an established and well-publicised programme of investment in employee training sends a clear message to staff that they are valued members of a team whose contribution is esteemed and encouraged, and for whom a clear path exists for career progression encompassing promotion.

Investment in ongoing, progressive training and development therefore plays a vital role in succession planning while simultaneously maintaining high levels of employee satisfaction, a positive, supportive corporate culture, and reduced staff ‘churn’. 

Flexibility can help release funding

I believe scope exists for a more creative and effective use of the apprentice levy currently paid to the UK Government by many CECA Scotland members, then returned to the Scottish Government via the block grant. Those funds then being made available on application for local companies to access a range of training courses at a number of Scottish colleges. Courses, I would argue, not always directly applicable to the training needs of the engineering, construction or property development sectors. Recent changes have allowed some firms to draw down funding to support their own external courses but the money is still tied to the local college which can charge a hefty ‘administration’ fee.

Introducing more flexibility into the system would allow contractors to direct levy-returned funds towards enrolling their staff in a choice of sector-specific education courses offered by private sector training providers in addition to the existing portfolio of College courses. Such a move would deliver increased choice while simultaneously facilitating a more targeted and effective use of funds resulting in an uplift in work-related learning for increasing numbers of workers.  

Partnership

Image courtesy of CECA Scotland

Many CECA Scotland members are well versed in working in partnership, frequently operating as joint ventures and strategic alliances.

Similarly, our team at CECA Scotland works closely with a number of specialist, high-performing training providers – of which Esteem Training represents one – and these training providers are well positioned to deliver benefits to our sector, including through Scotland’s network of regionally-based, industry-specific training groups. 

Training providers who are flexible, supportive and responsive in approach and delivery have demonstrated that they can work in rewarding partnership with our members – as well as with a wide range of construction-oriented companies. Training must be tailored to address the specific needs of individual organisations as well as evolving economic and environmental challenges, of which the pandemic-driven industry shutdown provides a case in point. I believe that this calibre of adaptability and mutually-beneficial partnership will prove crucial, moving forward, allowing ongoing embedded learning to take place and equipping increasing numbers of Scottish companies to thrive in the low carbon economy.