Do we need to improve skills and education in UK transport?

The quality of skills, education and training is a critical issue in any industry. If the provision of these factors is good, it can result in better decision-making and create a more attractive destination for new employees. Several questions are worth asking. How well are these provided in the public and private sectors in the transport industry? Are there good links between the education sector and employers? Are there areas of education and skills training that could be improved? And crucially how can a career in transport attract the brightest and best young people?

The ITC hosted a Discussion Evening to debate these issues on 8th April 2014 chaired by Kris Beuret OBE, an ITC Commissioner and Director of Social Research Associates. The subject was introduced via presentations from a distinguished panel comprising: Keith Mitchell, Chairman of Peter Brett Associates; Dr Tony Whiteing, Head of Education at ITS Leeds University; Paul Nowak, Assistant General Secretary of TUC; and Martin Richards OBE, from the Transport Planning Society.

Keith Mitchell of Peter Brett Associates shares his views

Keith Mitchell of Peter Brett Associates shares his views

The guest speakers focused on a number of key issues:

  • Keith Mitchell began by pointing out the very broad range of skills required by transport planners, who now have to work within a complex and rapidly changing legal and policy framework. He noted that the private sector had made strong progress in adopting the TPS professional development scheme, although some companies still have a way to go before gaining the full benefit of this approach. However, he described a crisis in the public sector, where resources are increasingly stretched, where many senior figures had taken early retirement or moved into consultancy, and where training budgets have been dramatically reduced despite increased demands on transport planners. This, he said, resulted in a number of undesirable outcomes, including a lack of leadership on transport and land use planning issues at senior levels within local authorities, a reduced capacity to act as an intelligent client, a focus on cost-reduction above value-creation, and missed opportunities to stimulate growth and capture value to support public services aims: all problems that need to be addressed.
  • Dr Tony Whiteing explained the ways that transport degree programmes could help to address skills and education needs within the industry. He outlined the skills that transport graduates should acquire, including subject specific skills, transferable skills, numerical and statistical competence, good communication and presentation skills, and a high standard of ethics and responsibility to maintain good practice and high standards.. All these helped the employability of students, although there were concerns that more work experience was needed by students. He noted that UK students would be more attracted to courses if there existed better funding and more opportunity for part-time learning. He concluded by noting changes he would like to see in the Masters courses offered by Leeds University, including a greater focus on modelling, a stronger emphasis on quantitative and statistical analysis, and encouraging students to undertake an integrated practical project and internships.
  • Paul Nowak addressed the need for improved skills training at all levels in the sector, including non-strategic roles. He noted that the UK faced a broad skills challenge, where too many people struggled with issues such as basic literacy and numeracy. He noted that 1/3 of UK employers do not support any training for employees, which has contributed to 22% of vacancies due to skill-shortages, costing the UK £1.2 billion per year. In transport there were particular challenges because the sector spent only half the national average on training per employee. He noted that extra investment in skills and training would pay off due to unmet demand for educational opportunities, resulting in better employee performance. In raising skills across the sector, Paul suggested that Trade Unions were a crucial part of the solution.
  • Martin Richards focused strongly on the needs of the younger generation entering the industry. He noted that the core skills required by transport planners were often not being met by the school education system. Employers prefer to recruit graduates, and while school leaver entry is limited the TPS will continue to monitor interest training for school leavers.  Most major consultants are committed to training, using the TPS Professional Development Scheme, but some are not. He suggested there is a serious problem in the public sector, with a real decline in the ability of many local authorities to be truly intelligent clients, managing out-sourced work to ensure delivery of relevant outcomes and value for money.  Martin recommended that we need to ensure school leavers have better basic skills, that more employees should hire school leavers, that many employers raise the standards of their training structures, that skills training needed to be rebuilt in the public sector, and that Universities should adapt Masters courses to meet changing skill needs.
ITC Commissioner Kris Beuret chairs the discussion

ITC Commissioner Kris Beuret chairs the discussion

A number of themes were raised in the subsequent discussion. These included the skills and recruitment challenges that are currently facing the transport industry, with the recession impacting transport significantly with high rates of redundancy, early retirement and budget cuts. Delegates noted that we need to be aware that skills and training need to be improved across the transport sector, across all modes (including private hire), and across all disciplines such as transport and spatial planners.

It was recognized by delegates that universities, schools and employers all play a role in addressing this skills gap in the transport sector, and the question was raised of how we can make transport ‘sexy’ in order to attract more young people and women into the profession. It was made clear that those already working and operating in the transport sector need to be positive advocates for the industry. Additionally, efforts should be made to emphasise the value of transport for the UK economy and government, and local authorities and government should work to promote the value of transport as they are in a good position to effect changes in education and skills development within the industry.