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Susan Hinchcliffe: empower us on skills or the young lose out on HS2's opportunities

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HS2 presents an opportunity to inspire, enthuse and excite a generation of young people about careers in engineering, project and construction management and skilled trades.

The educational strand of the Bloodhound world land speed record attempt has shown how a tangible and highly visible project can grab young people’s imagination in a way no classroom teaching, no matter how inspiring, will achieve. So imagine what an engineering project on the scale of HS2 could deliver?

However, this transformation will not happen organically and we need to be taking action now. It can take 8-10 years to develop the full breadth of knowledge and experience to achieve chartered engineer status and 5-8 years to become a construction manager. Digital technology is creating demand in the rail industry for skills not previously required in the sector while HS2 and other projects will also stimulate the demand for passenger and freight operations staff.

That is why education and skills are a central element of the plans we have set out to maximise the impact of HS2 in Leeds City Region, potentially helping to create 40,000 jobs. We want to deliver a schools programme offering work placements, insight days and project challenges and increase in apprenticeship uptake.

Our plan proposes the development of a rail sector skills ‘passport’, similar to the one already in operation in the nuclear industry, and the bringing together of business with colleges and other training providers to establish clear pathways into HS2-related careers.

With our universities and further education colleges already rich in rail and transport infrastructure expertise we want to develop the Institute for High Speed Rail and Systems Integration, design a bursary scheme with employers to help graduates into engineering careers and create career-switch programmes, particularly focused on those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to access HS2-related opportunities.

We will certainly need financial support from the government but developing these proposals has also served to underline our broader case for change in the way skills education is delivered.

We would like the ability and funding to direct careers education and greater control over budgets for apprenticeship promotion activity and unspent apprenticeship levy payments so they can be directed towards local skills needs. We would also like the power to build on our existing delivery agreements with local FE colleges to connect provision more directly to employers’ requirements.

Failing to plan and invest for the skills opportunities created by HS2 would short-change both the thousands of young people who could benefit and the country for failing to extract the full value of this significant public investment. Given the sector skills shortages already reported by employers it could also pose a real threat to the delivery of HS2 and future major infrastructure projects.

By acting decisively now we can ensure HS2 delivers a generational shift in the UK’s engineering and construction skills and maximise its economic impact which, in Leeds City Region alone, could measure at £54bn.

Susan Hinchcliffe (Lab), chair and skills spokesperson, West Yorkshire Combined CA; leader, Bradford City MDC

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