After successive years of recession and tough trading, would we accept UK growth at any price? Is it enough that we have the fastest growing G7 economy, and unemployment at its lowest level since 2008? Probably not, because this growth may falter unless issues of sustainable employment are addressed.
To truly achieve long-term, balanced growth (and build a successful business), we must help to establish authentic, robust pathways to employability. We need to address skills gaps through practical action, training places and explain clearly to those keen to work how they might make a difference. We need to boost our STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) capabilities, encourage gender diversity and create cultures that celebrate difference and all the productivity that it can bring.
Carillion sees a clear and actionable link between employment, strong communities and the creation of lasting value for society. We believe the private sector has an essential role to play in addressing this challenge.
There are widespread skills shortages in many key industries. The construction industry is seeing encouraging signs. Commercial and civil engineering are growing nearly as fast as they were in 2007, but extensive skills and trades are still needed in the sector. A huge number of these were lost during the financial crisis – haemorrhaging 200,000 employees under the age of 20 in the last few years. With a further 400,000 construction workers and engineers expected to retire by 2019, there is a clear gap to be addressed.
Career-focused training and education opportunities can help young people gain the skills necessary for long-term success. We see this on a day-to-day basis at our network of 13 construction training centres where we have up to 2000 apprentices at any one time.
Sustainable UK growth also relies increasingly on science-based skills. Although the number of students studying STEM subjects at A level and as undergraduates is improving, the UK still lags behind many of our major competitors and demand for people with STEM skills will continue to increase.
So we need to work hard to boost the pipeline of young people, particularly girls, with STEM skills through support for initiatives like Tomorrow’s Engineers and Born to Build. We’re playing our part through a range of initiatives, such as ‘Your Life’ campaign, a national programme to inspire young people to study STEM subjects, by developing an engineering module specifically aimed at girls. We have also publicly committed to increasing the number of female apprentices over the next five years.
Focusing on career opportunities for young people is, of course, only part of the solution. There are vulnerable or hard-to-reach groups of adults across society whose talent we’re missing out on. Our support for BiTC’s the Ban the Box initiative helps to rehabilitate offenders and break down some of the barriers to employment that they face. After eight years of commitment to their Ready for Work initiative, we have also helped over 300 people into full-time employment and to tackle a range of tough social issues.
Carillion introduced Community Needs Plans (CNPs) in 2013 to identify the specific needs of the local communities where we work and develop targeted plans to address these issues. For example, the Library of Birmingham worked with its local community to deliver 82 apprenticeships for young people, create employment for a further 62 local people, 30 work placements for homeless people, work experience for 50 schoolchildren and more than 600 school activity resource days.
In other areas, communities may have large numbers of people leaving the Armed Forces, so Carillion has recently provided 94 work placements for those making the transition to civilian life and 2 injured service personnel have started new careers with us. Our A465 roads project in Wales provided around 90 weeks of work experience, 37 new apprenticeships and taught over 500 local pupils about construction site safety. Our work to rejuvenate the Battersea Power Station site will create 500 new jobs in the local community and 114 training opportunities for young people.
So, can we accept growth at any price? Sustainable, responsible businesses would disagree – a balanced sustainability agenda is not a ‘nice to have’ but a core strategic imperative. At Carillion, we believe we’re taking important steps to pave the pathways to employability – the answers aren’t easy, but they are out there if we are committed enough.
David Picton is the Chief Sustainability Office at Carillion (www.carillionplc.com), a leading integrated support services and construction company which employs around 40,000 people in the UK, Middle East and Canada.
 IMF recently identified the UK as the fastest growing G7 economy
 Office for National Statistics has declared unemployment to be at its lowest level since 2008