Technology skills for the future of the geotechnical industry

Writing on behalf of the UK’s Federation of Piling Specialists, John Chick examines a potentially looming skills deficit within the industry
Technology skills for the future of the geotechnical industry Technology skills for the future of the geotechnical industry Technology skills for the future of the geotechnical industry Technology skills for the future of the geotechnical industry Technology skills for the future of the geotechnical industry

The FPS consider a more thoughtful and vigorous approach is needed to ensure our industry attracts as many of the best new recruits

John Chick

Geotechnical engineering is a fascinating and rewarding industry to be a part of. Although a niche activity, when compared to the overall size of the UK's construction and civil engineering industries, geotechnical and geological engineering, is of fundamental importance to UK infrastructure and construction in every sector.

It is no coincidence that many of our commercial centres are coastal ports or at strategic locations on large rivers and estuaries. Tall and heavy structures and deep retaining walls, shafts and cuttings are enabled which would be impossible without piling, diaphragm walls, grouting and anchoring and other techniques. Low-rise buildings and associated infrastructure are also possible where the economy and communities need them. UK PLC gets a disproportionately great deal from our specialism.

With Crossrail and Tideway underway, HS2 and its associated countrywide regeneration, plus projects such as Crossrail 2, the new Thames crossing, the Northern Hub, ongoing power and energy projects etc. the demand for skilled specialists will grow rapidly. The demand will cover site operatives to designers, project managers to data analysts.

The Federation of Piling Specialists (FPS) and supportive piling companies have made great progress in establishing the new Piling Apprenticeship, which is available and better formulated than ever before. Additionally, some FPS members run selective graduate recruitment and training programmes, but will these supply sufficient numbers to satisfy the possible demand?

Skills shortages at company level are commonly tackled in two ways. The first is to establish and use training schemes as above. The second is to set head-hunters to work and identify ‘targets' in other firms, already trained at others expense. Offer them more and hey presto!

Regardless of how you may feel about either approach, both only tackle short-term demand. Both also rely on there being recruits or employees available - what happens if they are not there?

In researching the learning and development needs of piling companies for the future, the FPS consider a more thoughtful and vigorous approach is needed to ensure our industry attracts as many of the best new recruits, with the right interests and abilities. It is, after all, a competition to attract people who do have a choice.

Consider the following assertions:

  • Some aspects of industry will never change
  • Ground engineering will always demand mobility and staying away from home
  • Projects will always be messy and not all manual handling activities can be automated
  • Some of these factors will limit the number of people with caring responsibilities (still, predominantly women) who want to take up site operative or plant operator roles

Are these statements true? Graduate female engineers, site engineers and commercial recruits etc already equal or outnumber recruits from the more traditional route in some companies. Readers who worked in the early 1980s will recall many piling rigs requiring physical strength to operate, primitive welfare arrangements (if any), working platforms you could lose your boots in and minimal training. You mailed site records and queued at the phone box to call your office.

Thankfully, we have made enormous progress to achieve cleaner, safer, civilised working environments. Digital engineering is better understood and gives us better productivity. Diversity, respect and a growing awareness of physical and mental health as well as safety are on our agenda… yet we tolerate the repeated misrepresentation of that progress in prime-time TV dramas. If we don't widely promote the reality, fiction will be what sticks in the minds of potential recruits. Our future industry will be unattractive to candidates who perceive a cleaner, less physical, more geographically stable job to be available. The FPS schedule of attendances and services achieved a step-change in the required site conditions. We must keep improvements going to compete as a career provider and not limit our vision of the future by referencing the past.

The talents needed by our industry will change with technology. As one example, remote control may change some roles we currently take for granted.

At Bauma in Munich this year I watched an excavator operator next to me dig a hole on a site in South Korea, so yes - one day technology will enable rigs to be operated from a desk in an office. But the number of rigs manufactured and bought every year is tiny compared with cars and airliners, excavators and cranes. The rate of change will be slower… but it will come.

As an industry we must engage better with manufacturers regarding our vision as contractors, and what is possible. Also, vocalise more thoughts around what developments are coming, including the learning and development arena. Many tower crane operators receive training on simulators. Piling simulators are becoming available.

Good engineering and competitive design will still drive cost-effectiveness. We already rotate design and project engineers coming into the industry. This creates opportunities to blend roles through multi-tasking throughout the project lifecycle and to retrain experienced employees and career changers for emerging roles.

One or two piling firms already require GCSEs and A-levels (or equivalent) to apply for a Piling Operative apprenticeship, while there will soon be Apprenticeship degrees and T-levels available within our discipline. In Europe it is not unusual to find rig operators and supervisors with engineering degrees. In future, will a rig operator be a rig operator all of her or his career?

We are witnessing great uncertainty and change in the world, the markets, communication and technology. Previous and present norms are no longer long-term certainties. As peoples' expectations regarding career choices and life-aims also change, we owe it to ourselves, our industry and UK PLC to put our best foot forward in maintaining and attracting the best recruits to our specialism. It is incumbent upon us to think and plan for a different future on-site and ‘in the office', based around novel career paths and appropriate learning and development.

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