The Welsh engineering trade, like the rest of the UK, took a look at itself in the mirror during lockdown – but none of its problems were new, and the industry is ready to help Wales build back for a more effective, inclusive, and environmentally-friendly sector in the future. Tangent sits down with Ed Evans, company director and secretary at the Civil Engineering Contractors Association (CECA), to reflect on the industry’s response to COVID-19
For me, during the lockdown it was very much about dealing with initial panic. It was very difficult for members, asking themselves: do we just go into lockdown like everyone else, or are we supposed to do something?
This was the question members of the Welsh construction sector posed to themselves earlier this year as industries went into lockdown, in the words of Ed Evans, director at CECA. The civils industry in Wales, like it was across the UK, was in limbo regarding it status as a ‘key sector’ and the projects it was working on; considering whether it was justified continuing travelling to work sites, or whether they should power down their work stations and halt operations completely.
A fortnight following the lockdown call in March, a number of CECA’s members shifted their attention to the completion of temporary hospitals around Wales and began the “restart phase,” Ed explained, on critical infrastructure, keeping roads, railways, power stations, and similarly vital infrastructure projects running. Ed penned a blog post in late April on the infrastructure sector being “vital” to economic recovery in Wales in keeping major projects moving, businesses remaining open, and buffeting the economic impacts of a looming recession brought about by COVID-19.
“Since then, we moved onto where we are now, which is to build back better, where we can help firms through this initial 3-6 months of uncertainty. Get through that, and then move on to create a better business environment, build better infrastructure,” Ed told Tangent.
Did the sector learn anything new about itself during lockdown, in Ed’s opinion? For the CECA director, whilst there may not have been any new lessons brought about by COVID-19, it did accentuate a lot of issues that were in the industry prior to the pandemic.
The prioritisation of workers’ mental health in particular was noted by Ed as something which construction firms had “stepped up to the plate” in offering greater support during lockdown, particularly remote-working and furloughed back-office staff for businesses.
But Evans, a chartered civil engineer with nearly three decades’ worth of civil engineering experience, explained that this was one of many issues that COVID-19 had “cranked up” and brought to the fore of key challenges to be tackled by industry.
“I think those returning issues probably play across the board,” Ed said. The CECA director listed issues facing the industry accentuated by Coronavirus, including the visibility – or lack thereof – of a funding pipeline; difficult procurement processes; unfair payment practices; regulation and skills issues; and decarbonisation.
“They were all there before, it’s just that they’ve come to the fore even more now. But if we don’t get these things right, we won’t have a construction industry moving forward. So it’s increased in emphasis on the issues that were already there.”
Effectively building back
The resounding lesson from the pandemic for Ed was the importance of public-private sector collaboration in Wales to effectively deliver a recovery plan for the industry. CECA and its partners (the Wales Construction Federation Alliance (WCFA)) are taking forward a 12-point short-term recovery plan, focussing on the outlined business and environmental issues, making sure the building blocks are in place for long-term environmental and financial sustainability in the construction sector.
For the Welsh Government, the challenges Ed listed – particularly the economic impacts of dealing with deprived communities hardest hit by the pandemic – presents an opportunity for collaboration: “It’s given us an added impetus to tackle those issues that we knew were always there, but again COVID has just brought them out to us, more than ever. For me, it’s about working in collaboration.
“If we can do that, we can come out of it a lot stronger.”
An interesting angle on effectively bouncing back that the CECA director highlighted in Tangent’s interview was the balance of investment in projects around Wales.
Despite infrastructure works around northern areas in Wales such as the £12bn Wylfa Newydd Horizon Nuclear Power project and the £200m Deeside Corridor Project on the East-West transport A55 junction, Ed lamented that justification of investment in infrastructure projects is heavily skewed on an economic basis: “Unless you can show a strong economic return, it becomes very difficult to move forward with certain projects,” Ed claimed.
“And I have to say that that does tend to favour the already wealthier parts of the UK and Wales as well. It gets easier to justify things in places like London and the south-east of England and the south-east of Wales around Cardiff.
“That needs to change, so that we do have a greater emphasis on the environmental benefits, but also the social benefits of some of our investments.”
Ed continued to argue that COVID-19 will have highlighted the need for a shift towards social and environmental outcomes – encouraging active travel such as walking and cycling on transport, increasing tax on the private car user, and building greener and cheaper forms of transport – as effective steps in future infrastructure planning.
“Unless we have that shift to more of social and environmental outcomes, then we’ll continue to go down a very dark economic route; which is not sustainable,” Ed argued.
The perception of the ‘key’ infrastructure sector – and its silver lining?
As redundancies and unemployment figures continue to increase following the conclusion of government furlough schemes, STEM-based engineering roles could benefit. Ranging from those already working in hospitality & travel re-training, to students considering engineering as a viable sector to build their future career, engineering as an industry could be a sector in greater demand for jobs in the future.
And doesn’t the sector need it: Engineering UK has estimated at least 1.8 million engineers will need to be trained by 2025, with a particular demand for women entering the industry which comprises of just over 12% of all engineers being female. The significance of construction and engineering was highlighted in lockdown as projects continued to roll through, keeping key workers moving: but does the industry do enough to shout about its importance, and the value of the potential careers within it?
“I think there’s something we can do in that area to try to highlight the importance and the value of [the sector],” Ed agreed.
“We can’t get away from the fact that we don’t sell our industry particularly well. It still has a millstone around its neck in terms of sections, it’s seen as being very male-dominated.
“If you’re in the actual works bit, the hands-on workspace, it’s still seen I think across the board – particularly in things like housing and domestic building – as a route for somebody who is maybe not achieving academically, or not particularly bright. Not motivated academically.”
Ed continued that though this is clearly not the reality, and not enough is being done to change this perception (specifically in the industry’s encouragement to bring in BAME and female workers), the CECA director is supporting the Qualifications Wales scheme on “Construction and the Built Environment” to take specific qualifications in the sector.
“I think COVID has caused problems – the opportunity for us is in the economic aftermath and the recovery stage. I’m pleased that in Wales we have new qualifications coming through which are really timely – specifically for people coming through who would like a career in engineering, but perhaps don’t want to do the typical mathematics and physics subjects,” he explained.
“That is the kind of thing that goes into schools, tells them there’s opportunities there, and they can actually study for a qualification there. I think that’s a massive step forward for us.”
Ed Evans will be a keynote speaker at Peloton’s Wales Transport Week, starting 28 September. Click here to register for free!