Industry needs pipeline certainty to invest in apprentices’ digital skills 

Colin Wood is chief executive for Europe and India at Aecom 

National Apprenticeship Week is one of the dates in the business calendar that holds significant meaning for me. I started my career as an apprentice and recognise the huge opportunity these vocational courses give young people in gaining a solid footing on an interesting and rewarding career path.

This year, Aecom has recruited a record number of apprentices and graduates, and I often enjoy meeting them when I’m visiting our offices around the country. However, as the construction sector continues to grapple with a skills shortage – the latest figures from the Construction Industry Training Board show that almost 225,000 extra workers will be required by 2027 – it’s important to reflect on how we’re training our apprentices to meet the UK’s future construction demands.

“Giving the sector certainty that projects are going ahead will inspire companies to invest in the required specialist training”

While digital transformation is already high on the agenda for many of the industry’s biggest players, National Apprenticeship Week, which took place on 6-12 February, presented a perfect opportunity for the sector to ensure that data and digital expertise is at the centre of apprenticeship programmes and is a key element of courses delivering the engineers and construction professionals of the future.

In a highly competitive job market, the industry must look at new ways to prevent a worsening data skills gap; training the existing workforce with future-ready skills is a key part of the solution. 

We are already seeing how new digital technologies, including artificial intelligence and machine learning, as well as innovative uses of data and analytics, can transform and improve the delivery and outcomes of projects. Investing in specialist digital training for apprentices and other employees will help embed new capabilities across the sector and build a pipeline of talent armed with the skills and behaviour that will shape the future of the industry.

New careers with appeal

However, in order to maximise investment, the government must give industry confidence through a longer-term pipeline of investment in new infrastructure and buildings. Giving the sector certainty that projects are going ahead will inspire companies to invest in the required specialist training for their apprentices and other employees.

To that end, Aecom has a Data Academy, now in its second successful year, aimed at training its apprentices and other employees with new skills in areas including data analytics, data science and artificial intelligence. It is a three-year programme, run by training providers including Multiverse, and graduates will finish with a degree in data analytics and data science, master’s degrees or one-year certificates.

Through the academy, employees learn new data capabilities that Aecom has identified as important future skills. We are also stepping up our work with colleges and universities to help tailor engineering and other technical courses to include data specialisms, equipping the next generation of professionals with the industry’s future skills requirements. We are using some of the Apprenticeship Levy funding to support this training.

Aecom is also hiring apprentices in specialist data roles to join its global team of more than 2,000 digital practitioners. They will gain qualifications in data analytics and machine learning while also receiving on-the-job training using solutions such as digital twins, augmented reality, telematics and smart cities.

To entice talent away from software, banking and technology sectors, the construction industry will need to focus on the rewarding opportunities for career development that other sectors cannot offer. Digital practitioners working in the built-environment sector will have the opportunity to work with unique data sets and solve complex challenges on real-life projects that make a tangible difference to society.

The construction sector holds a lot of appeal for young people with the opportunity to work on projects that help solve some of our biggest problems today, such as the need to decarbonise the built environment or improving healthcare. We must do what we can to ensure we have the right skillsets to deliver.

I’m excited for the future for our apprentices,. As an industry, we need to make sure we harness their talent so that they can achieve the impact they want to make. We owe it to them.

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