ITC debates improving skills and education in transport

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

The Occasion

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 factors provided in the public and private sectors of the transport industry? Are there good links between educational institutions 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 (TPS).


Education and Skills in UK Transport – key issues raised by the speakers:

Keith Mitchell addresses audience

  • 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 develop best practice and high standards. All these increased the employability of students, although there were concerns that students needed to take on more work experience. He noted that UK students would be more attracted to courses if there existed better funding and more opportunities 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 more 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 ⅓ of UK employers do not support any training for employees, leading to 22% of vacancies unfilled 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 the 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.

Alan Baxter introduces discussion

Key themes raised in the discussion:

  • There are both skills and recruitment challenges facing the transport industry. Delegates noted that the impact of the recession had been particularly damaging for transport, with high rates of redundancy, increased early retirement and staffing budget cuts. There could now be a serious shortage of skilled people entering the profession at a time when transport spending is due to increase and when major infrastructure projects such as HS2 are bringing a new wave of job opportunities. We need to ensure that we have an appropriately skilled and trained cohort of people to fill those roles.
  • We need to be aware that skills and training should be improved across the transport industry, in all its modal guises, as well as for transport and spatial planners. In the former case we should not forget the training and skills needs of the self-employed in transport, such as in the taxi/private hire industry. More should be done to encourage different routes into the transport industry and make it accessible for both school leavers and graduates.
  • Universities, schools and employers all have a role in addressing skills needs in the transport sector. At the school level, delegates suggested there should be greater emphasis on basic skills and presentation. Universities should adapt to the changing demands of the transport industry and be more market focused. There was some disagreement about the effects of globalisation and the drive to attract international students on University courses. Employers, particularly in the public sector, should take more opportunities to engage with new qualifications, such as the TPP, and embrace more modern versions of training.
  • How can we make transport ‘sexy’ and attract more young people and women into the profession? Attendees stressed the importance of making transport more attractive in schools, especially at an early stage before GCSE and A-level choices are made. It was suggested that young people would become more interested in the profession if its importance for the way we live was explained, including why we travel. Some noted that transport is too often seen as a purely technical subject. Gender diversity in the industry also needs to be addressed, although delegates noted this was fast improving in the younger cohorts and on University courses.
  • Those of us in the transport sector need to be positive advocates for the industry. Delivering transport is critical to our everyday lives, and people want to feel that their work is worthwhile, so guests noted that if those in the industry can enthusiastically share the story of transport they would help to increase interest in the field. Additionally, we should get across the message of the value of transport for the UK economy and government.
  • Local authorities and Government need to recognise the value of transport. Some delegates noted that local authorities are too weak and not trusted by the national government, but they are in a good position to stimulate changes in local education and skills development. Leicestershire County Council was noted as having made a significant effort in promoting such education and training through a ‘succession plan’ that recruited graduates who were then trained in all aspects of the council’s activities. Likewise, at a national level, the DfT and other Departments have a critical role in promoting good skills formation.