Industry leaders discuss decarbonisation of the transport sector

28th Mar 2024

At a lively roundtable as part of this year’s Interchange conference in Manchester, representatives from engineering, policy, planning, and sustainability met to debate what skills are needed for a serious push towards decarbonisation.

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By Phillip Othen

In an event designed to be a catalyst for the digitalisation and decarbonisation of the transport industry, there was a noticeable energy within the Manchester Central conference centre.

A series of roundtables provided the ideal setting for this energy to be converted into action, not least CIHT’s afternoon session looking at the skills required for decarbonisation and getting more entry level workers to combat the ageing workforce, thereby helping to facilitate this change.

Chaired by Sue Percy CBE, CEO of CIHT, it opened by highlighting the urgency of the issue and whether the industry was acting quick enough in accelerating a green change.

Mike O’Dowd Jones, Interim Service Director Infrastructure and Transport at Somerset Council echoed thoughts from Kim Yates, carbon and sustainability professional that there is more to do and at a faster rate.

“I think one of the things we conclude is the leadership is behind the pace, so we really need to find leaders who are prepared to act and do things differently.

“Until you've got that sort of leadership in place, it's very difficult to see how things fundamentally change,” stated Mike.

Will Bowers, Carbon Advisor at Balfour Beatty, expanded on the importance of evolving leadership.

“I think there are conversations going on at [a] leadership level that weren’t taking place five years ago. I think that shift has started [and] there are positive indicators there.”

“[It has to] filter down to action level, because I think the talk is there at the sustainability leadership level,” agreed Joanna Hitchen, Costain (EDI Charter signatory).

Skill shortage or wrong place, wrong time?

“’So what skills are we looking for?’ ‘Have we got an abundance of certain skills, or do we need more of something else?’ ‘Are we going to have to look outside of where we normally recruit?’” asked Sue Percy, as the conversation turned to skillsets.

“I think there needs to be training on all levels of projects because sometimes people are working on a project and they're not high up, they often think it's not my job.

“[You can] educate how each level can affect the outcome of the project, from graduate all the way to [the boardroom],” said Mark Connelly, Chief Engineer and Professional Head of Highways at Atkins.
Adding to this point was Ian Robinson, Commercial Director, Fox Group and CIHT North West Region Vice Chair, who believed those with decarbonisation knowledge should shift from an “advisory” to a “core function”.

“I've got some very talented environmental people, but they sit in the wrong place. They sit on the periphery, [whereas] you need to put them in the middle.”

This notion of more notice being paid to experts within the industry – and, indeed, educating others – was not the only issue relating to skill shortages, according to Anna Delvecchio, Partner at EY and member of the Highways Sector Council.

“I think the sector has got a skills gap, but actually we've got a change in [the] requirements and skills we need. And there are elements or skills that you wouldn't traditionally associate with transport, whether that be data analytics, AI or technology.”

It soon became clear, however, that within the industry, there is action being taken to engage potential new talent.

“The Future Leaders Group for the Highways Sector Council are putting a campaign together to attract people into [the industry]. What we identified is the perception of the highways sector is [sometimes negative], highlighting a lack of diversity,” explained Ant Lindley, Head of Health, Safety & Wellbeing GB Surfacing, Breedon Group, and also member of the Highways Sector Council.

“In the surfacing division, the average workforce age is 58. So not only are we looking to attract new younger, diverse workers, but we're also looking to transfer that skillset for the ageing workforce to develop.”

“[Current] university students have all these decarbonisation skills because of the education pathways they've gone through,” suggested Will Bowers.

“We need to show the younger generations coming through that if they really want to make a fundamental difference to the UK reaching net zero, this is the sector they need to be working in.”
Accessibility measures put into place by companies representing transportation and highways were also highlighted as a key driver for younger people. 

“Knowing that you're going into organisations that have that awareness and accessibility training, whether it's the documents (such as screen readers or dyslexia-friendly fonts) or physical accessibility can make it such an easier place to work,” enthused Kate Ball, Campaigns and Policy Officer at Wheels for Wellbeing.

Exactly what skills are missing?

Speaking for the haulage industry, James Barwise, Policy Lead at the Road Haulage Association indicated any skills shortage issue was relatively simple to solve.

“The skills we need are the same; we need drivers, we need mechanics. So, it's not a mystical thing. We just need to upskill the kind of roles we have now for a future world where we're moving into green vehicles.”

Others around the table could see some skills needing to be improved, but this falls on the industry’s shoulders.

“The biggest skill I find lacking is [the time for] critical thinking,” said Joanna Hitchen. “Because our day job is just to deliver, there is not the space to think outside the box and take risks.”

Picking up on what the sector can do to facilitate this change was Nathalie Cachet-Gaujard, Head of Partnerships - North England, Primary Engineer.

“I have a question mark on critical thinking and if it's actually really embraced within businesses. Everybody wants it, everybody wants to apply it. But to me, I see so many situations where the whole culture of the organisation is against critical thinking.”

“There is [another missing skill] which is understanding user experience. Because in transportation, nobody actually thinks properly about user experience, about the ways people walk through the city,” stated Deni Krevesic, member of Future Transport Vision Group.

As the roundtable drew to a close by asking what participants would request from the government (bigger sustainability incentives, a stronger industrial strategy, science-based policies on decarbonisation among the suggestions), the last words were left to Alex Parkin, Principal Transport Planner, Pell Frischmann and CIHT North West Region Chair.

“[We need] more [governmental] pressure on companies to include better policies, family policies, flexible work and the ability to diversify the engineering sector.”

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