Meeting the challenges of automation, employability and diversity

As we all, slowly, face up to the challenges of automation, Ed Evans, Director of the Civil Engineering Contractors Association (CECA) Cymru, examines the potential impacts of automation in the infrastructure sector, and how both public and private sectors need to work together to address the challenges for the workforce.

Increased automation is impacting, and will continue to impact, on all aspects of our lives. Unless we face up to the challenges, and opportunities, then this impending revolution threatens to turn our world upside down. And it’s those who embrace the change and adapt accordingly who will survive and thrive. The demise of the dinosaurs springs to mind!

A few weeks ago the Minister for Welsh Language and Lifelong Learning, Eluned Morgan, launched the Welsh Government’s Employability Plan with the aim of preparing people for a changing world of work, ready to meet the opportunities of automation, digitalization and decarbonisation. This changing world is already impacting the infrastructure structure so we should be aware, more than most, of the challenges ahead. But, then again, how accepting are we of these challenges. As an industry, we are not known for embracing change which is slightly ironic given the way infrastructure has supported so much change over the centuries!

The Minister’s vision of making Wales a full employment, high tech, high wage economy is a highly laudable one and we all want more people joining or returning to the world of work. Part of the deal is creating a more inclusive workforce, with greater numbers of disabled people in work, and a decrease in the gender pay gap as well as the disability and BAME pay gaps. These are issues which continue to plague the infrastructure so we’re starting from a fairly low base. But increased automation in our sector should allow us to increase the pace of change in these areas and increase diversity within our sector.

However, there are at least two sides to the deal proposed by the Minister and we need to see the wider public sector play their part in achieving this vision. I’ve spoken many times before about the need to value the industry better and, in particular, squeeze far greater social value out of the work we do. But that needs the public sector to play a much greater part in this through a more subtle use of the procurement process – and, of course, start to deliver far greater investment in infrastructure.

The Minister’s Plan offers a longer-term view of how this vision can be delivered and she aims to take action in a number of key areas including individualised support to those who need it, a new Employment Advice Gateway as the first port of call for people who are not in work and “Working Wales”, a new employability programme to support people into work by removing barriers and raising skill levels. This programme will support unemployed, economically inactive and NEET individuals aged 16 and over to enter sustained employment, an apprenticeship, or self-employment.

I don’t know about you but “Working Wales” has parallels with the “Community Benefits” programme which we’re very familiar with in the infrastructure sector. And this is where we need to see just as much action from the public sector as we do from the private sector. If the public sector can put in place the support structures needed to deliver “work-ready” people along with the investment promised for new and existing infrastructure then the industry can respond in a way which delivers more employment and the skills needed to meet the challenges of increased automation, digitalisation and decarbonisation. Sounds like a fair “economic contract” between public and private sectors? However, it will need concerted action to tackle the cultural “reluctance” of the public sector to work closely with private sector.

The Minister has stated that she is looking forward to working in partnership with organisations across Wales to deliver the actions outlined in this Plan. I’ll be ensuring that CECA Wales, along, hopefully, with other partners in the sector, is one of those organisations so that the skills and employment needs of the infrastructure sector are not forgotten as part of this great revolution!


Ed Evans is Director of the Civil Engineering Contractors Association (CECA) Wales Cymru.

CECA Wales Cymru  represents 60 of Wales’ largest and smallest civil engineering contracting businesses with a cumulative annual turnover in excess of £1bn and employing over 6,000 people. These businesses play a huge part in supporting communities across Wales and make a significant contribution to the economic prosperity of our nation. Our members are also major providers of training and apprenticeship opportunities.

On a more fundamental level it is our members who will build the infrastructure that our nation needs to prosper.