Future infrastructure needs require new skills from tomorrow’s talent

WSP’s chief executive Mark Naysmith reflects on why current challenges and opportunities make today an exciting time to be embarking on a career in the construction industry.  

Mark Naysmith, chief executive officer of WSP UK and South Africa.

The recent National Apprenticeship Week was an opportunity to pause and reflect upon how much our industry has changed in only a generation. Whilst it’s always been an industry reliant on its people, their relationships with clients and creative solutions to complex problems, the transformation I’ve seen since joining WSP as a graduate engineer 30 years ago never ceases to amaze me. 

I’m fortunate to attend our annual apprentice and graduate programme opening events in Birmingham and the calibre of early career professionals we have in the industry today is inspiring. You need only look at transformational projects such as HS2 and Thames Tideway Tunnel, and the government’s commitment to an “infrastructure revolution” supporting regional connectivity and prosperity, to see why it’s an exciting time to be starting a career in our industry. 

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But it’s also an important time to be beginning a career. The UK’s target to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 puts squarely into focus the significance of climate change and the need to decarbonise our built environment while furthering the protection of our natural environment. Progress is being made – we’ll find out exactly how much at COP26 later this year in Glasgow – but more needs to be done.

Many firms are acting to address their own carbon emissions. Initiatives such as Pledge to Net Zero and commitments by engineering and construction firms to become carbon neutral – including WSP UK’s target set in 2017 of being carbon neutral by 2025 – are a vital way to bring employees on the journey with us. If they understand the significance of the challenge we face, they will take that passion and understanding into their projects, helping clients understand it too.

Designing future-ready projects which are both resilient and adaptable to climate change, as well as decarbonising existing energy and transport infrastructure, requires new skills from the next generation in our industry as well as skills diversification from current employees – modifying their existing skill sets to changing requirements.

Every pound invested in STEM initiatives and upskilling our employees is always well spent. As with climate change, this is not a question of if but when, and that ‘when’ is today. This is why, amongst many other initiatives, WSP has become a patron of The 5% Club in 2020 – committing to supporting ‘earn and learn’ positions as part of building and developing our growing workforce.

WSP’s bespoke programmes for our graduates, undergraduates and apprentices, and scholarship students ensure our employees have the necessary skills to provide clients with innovative and future-ready solutions. The more we view complex challenges through key trends in climate change, society, technology and resources, the better our solutions will be for our clients and the communities in which we live and work. 

A graduate or apprentice in 2020 could, like me, be a chief executive before 2050, and we must do all we can today to ensure they have the skills and knowledge to address the very real challenge which faces us tomorrow.

Mark Naysmith is the chief executive officer of WSP UK and South Africa.

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