In an exclusive interview, Greg Pitcher sits down with Helen Higgs, EDF's skills lead, to discuss the monumental task of constructing the Hinkley Point C nuclear plant and its potential to alleviate the construction industry's prevailing skills crisis. Higgs acknowledges the immense challenge of preparing a workforce for the construction of the United Kingdom's first nuclear power plant in over two decades. The scale of the project, coupled with its intricate technical requirements and the absence of prior work in the field, make it a daunting endeavour. Higgs remains optimistic, emphasising that despite the project's complexities and the disruptive events of recent years, Hinkley Point C can play a pivotal role in job creation and support the country's economic recovery.
Higgs highlights the pressing need for policies that address the forthcoming retirement of approximately 750,000 construction workers by 2036, a concern identified by the Institute for Public Policy Research. She draws attention to the shortage of young people entering the industry, which has been further exacerbated by the departure of skilled workers, particularly those born in EU countries, due to Brexit and the pandemic. Higgs also sheds light on the decline in apprenticeship starts and the difficulties in attracting new talent to the construction sector.
Regarding the Hinkley Point C project, Higgs believes that it presents both a challenge and a significant opportunity. She emphasizes the importance of client oversight in ensuring the project's safety and timely completion. EDF has taken a comprehensive approach to improving skills across various regions and sectors, striving for sustainable progress. Higgs underscores the need to establish skill standards and pathways, citing the creation of apprenticeship standards specifically tailored for the nuclear industry. She mentions a range of roles required for the project, including plant operators, supervisors, steel fixers, engineers, and many others.
Higgs discusses how Hinkley Point C has been instrumental in catalysing the development of national standards and pathways to enhance the skill sets of the UK construction workforce. She emphasises the significance of these standards in ensuring consistency, particularly in the demanding nuclear industry. Higgs highlights the success of the steel fixing apprenticeship standard implemented at Hinkley Point C and its positive impact on providing opportunities for individuals who were previously distant from established career pathways.
The interview showcases EDF's commitment to the South West of England, with a notable £1.5 billion spending plan dedicated to engaging local companies and a goal of training 1,000 apprentices. Higgs mentions the shift in focus to the UK workforce following Brexit and emphasizes the necessity of allowing sufficient time to train workers in the technical capabilities required for the project. She also acknowledges the potential influence of the pandemic on the construction industry, as more individuals may consider joining the sector due to economic circumstances.
Higgs highlights the Welding Centre of Excellence at Bridgwater and Taunton College, which not only prepares individuals for the Hinkley Point C project but also aims to bolster the talent pool for future endeavours, including EDF's proposed Sizewell C nuclear scheme. She explains the significance of maximizing right-first time working and ensuring quality in the UK supply chain, drawing lessons from previous construction projects such as Flamanville in France.
The interview delves into EDF's investments in various skills and innovation centres, including the Mechanical Centre of Excellence, which offers practical training for critical tasks. Higgs emphasises the collaborative efforts between EDF, colleges, local enterprise partnerships, and industry bodies to assess workforce demand and maximize the long-term impact of the Hinkley Point C project. She anticipates that the training and upskilling initiatives will yield benefits for future projects such as Sizewell C, HS2, and the installation of high-speed broadband.
Higgs expresses confidence in meeting the challenges posed by the Sizewell C project and envisions an improved construction industry overall. She believes that through the successful completion of Hinkley Point C and subsequent projects, there will be heightened awareness and attractiveness of careers in welding, steel fixing, and other construction roles. This, in turn, will greatly benefit local workers and young people seeking opportunities in the construction industry in the years to come.