Hinkley Point C: how the megaproject can help fix the UK’s skills shortage

Posted on 27 May 2021

With up to 150 different roles employed on the Somerset site,Greg Pitcherspeaks to EDF’s skills lead on how the Hinkley Point C build will set up a pipeline of training that should benefit the construction industry for years to come

“For sure it was a big challenge,” says Helen Higgs, with a degree of understatement as she reflects on the task of creating a workforce ready to build the UK’s first nuclear plant in more than two decades.

As head of nuclear new-build construction skills at energy giant EDF, Higgs has a key role in ensuring the £23bn Hinkley Point C project is not disrupted by personnel issues.

The sheer size of the scheme, its technical requirements and the current vacuum of prior work in this field present their own difficulties – and that’s before we throw in the political, social and economic events of the time.

French firm EDF acquired the Hinkley Point nuclear campus in Somerset when it bought British Energy in 2008. Since then, as well as negotiating its own planning, financing and licensing hurdles, the project has surfed the waves of four prime ministers, the banking collapse, Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic.

And while all this has been going on, the construction industry skills crisis has only deepened (see box, below).

Against this tumultuous background, Hinkley Point C requires 25,000 workers – including those needed for its operational phase – with several thousand on site at any one time during construction, in up to 150 different roles.

Rather than looking for excuses, Higgs is optimistic that the project can be part of the solution, creating jobs and helping drive an economic recovery.

Construction’s skills crisis

The Institute for Public Policy Research this year warned that policies are urgently needed to address the pipeline of 750,000 construction workers due to move to the brink of retirement between now and 2036.

Research by the think tank found that just one in five construction workers is currently under the age of 30.

A lack of successful efforts to attract young people to the industry has been exacerbated by an exodus of those workers who were propping the industry up. As of November 2020, the number of EU-born construction workers in London had halved in just two years, with more than 60,000 people exiting the profession from the capital alone.

The data, produced by the Office for National Statistics and analysed by the Construction Products Association, appeared to show a big hit to the workforce from both Brexit and the pandemic. And it could get worse. In December, trade association Build UK warned that the UK’s new points-based immigration system will make it more difficult for businesses to hire lower-skilled foreign workers.

In February,Construction Newsrevealed further industry concerns after a 40 per cent drop in the number of apprenticeship starts in England.

“It was a challenge but also a huge opportunity,” she says, looking back to the start of the project. “What was clear to EDF was that client oversight was really important to maximise impact on skills.

“The client ultimately owns the risk of the project being unsafe or behind schedule, which would not be acceptable; and has the 360-degree view as we work across regions and sectors and can see how to create links to make sure the improvements we make are sustainable.”

Sustainability in personnel terms means ensuring skill levels are improved in a meaningful way and leave a legacy for the industry when the project finishes, Higgs explains.

She says: “As we create our contribution to the COVID recovery programme, and demonstrate the role of nuclear power in the UK’s net-zero ambition, it is important to show how this all links to green jobs.

“How does the UK supply chain get into a position of strength against non-UK suppliers in major infrastructure projects in the future when it hasn’t been in the past? How does it eventually export skills? You build standards and you build quality through those standards and then you have a supply chain that can be the majority supply chain on UK projects.”

EDF worked closely with key companies at pre-contract stage to understand what their workforces might need to look like. Then it collaborated with trade bodies and the Construction Industry Training Board to map supply against demand and visualise where the shortfalls could be.

“We immediately saw supply and standard issues,” Higgs says. “In steel fixing and carpentry formwork there were no UK standards.”

The right standard of skills

Higgs believes creation of such apprenticeship standards, which detail the structure of a course and what is required to complete it, are a critical part of upskilling the UK construction workforce.

“To create a UK pipeline of steel fixers you need a standard to assure consistency, which is paramount in the nuclear industry,” she says. “A level 2 standard [apprenticeship] was created.”

The Centre for Apprenticeships jobs board was advertising a steel fixing apprenticeship at Hinkley Point C as this article was written. The successful applicant would undergo tutorials, workshops and practical sessions as well as working on the project itself through a subcontractor, said the website. “The skills learnt over the lifespan of this project will firmly establish your career in construction, with this prestigious project on your CV from day one,” it added.

Higgs says 41 people have completed this standard at Hinkley Point, with another 28 currently undertaking it. “I like that standard. It is entry level and gives opportunities for people who were furthest from work to forge ahead.”

At least 10 apprenticeship standards have been developed for the nuclear industry in the past five years, which is no coincidence.

“To create a UK pipeline of steel fixers you need a standard to assure consistency, which is paramount in the nuclear industry”

“The project has been instrumental in being a catalyst for the creation of these national standards,” Higgs adds.

“We have huge formal commitments to create skills pathways. What are you recruiting people against and how are you showing them a skills pathway without a standard? We know that you miss opportunities – including for social mobility for people who are furthest away from career pathways – without standards.”

One big advantage of Hinkley Point C as a means of upskilling the industry is the breadth of its scope.

“There is a massive range of skills needed,” Higgs says. “From plant operators to catering staff, hospitality, steel fixers, supervisors, concrete operatives, facilities managers, carpentry form workers, mechanical and electrical engineers, welders and more.”

EDF has pledged to spend £1.5bn with companies in the South West of England and outlined an ambition to train 1,000 apprentices.

The COVID challenge

Hinkley Point C is being built in turbulent times, which brings many challenges (see box, below). But, in some ways, Brexit and the pandemic have aided the company’s drive to train up local people – or at least helped it keep a tight focus on this aim.

“Post-Brexit, there is an emphasis on the UK workforce,” Higgs says. “The immigration regulations changed on 1 January and you have to look at the UK pipeline first.”

She stresses that EDF has always prioritised domestic skills but says that, despite its best efforts, training workers in technical capabilities takes time.

Progress on site in the COVID era

The pandemic has arrived at a tricky time for Hinkley Point C, which is roughly half way through its 10-year programme from start on site in 2016 to becoming operational in 2026.

In January, EDF announced that delivery would be delayed by six-months due to the pandemic, with the final project cost also rising by up to £1bn.

Higgs says: “We are 44 per cent of the way through construction. The aim is to be at 75 per cent by the end of 2022. Our ambition remains to lift the first dome on unit one by the end of next year, which remains unchanged based on an expectation that conditions will improve this year [as the pandemic eases].”

She says that workforce safety is the number one priority with numbers of people on site reduced by half during the pandemic. “What has been really fantastic progress is that we achieved 18 out of 20 critical milestones in 2020. It has been very moving how the whole workforce has responded to COVID to stay safe and keep things going,” she says.

Headcount on site has recently returned to pre-pandemic levels. “We are now back up to around 5,000 people on site, with social distance requirements. There will be a build-up of numbers this year and we will keep to the regulations as they evolve.”

“When the UK pipeline is too small or not yet experienced enough then you have to go to talent wherever it is,” she says. “You can’t halt a major programme. You have to demonstrate that you are building a pipeline but some people may not be ready yet. You don’t produce skilled welders on a six-month course.

“At the other end of the scale, there are skills that are really hard to find for different reasons. Large-scale infrastructure project managers and directors for example. You go and search for those skill sets; they may well be on the other side of the world.”

Meanwhile the economic damage brought about by the coronavirus could have an unexpected impact for construction, with more people potentially in a position to consider joining the industry.

“When we first started there was a target that 8 per cent of our workforce would be [recruited from among those who were] unemployed following the 2008 economic crash,” Higgs says. “By the time we started building in 2016, the industry was booming so we had to ask for that target to be changed.” She says in light of the latest economic situation this is being looked at again, “It’s come full circle,” she says.

As well as introducing new people to the industry, EDF looks to build up the skills of those already operating within it, giving them recognised qualifications to benefit both the project and their future careers. One place where this happens is the Welding Centre of Excellence at Bridgwater and Taunton College.

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As well as creating individuals ready to work on Hinkley Point C, the centre is being used to boost the talent pool ready for future projects including EDF’s own proposed follow-up nuclear scheme at Sizewell in Suffolk.

Sizewell C is a nuclear plant build proposed by EDF and its joint venture partner China General Nuclear Power, which would be almost identical to Hinkley Point C. The firms, who are partners on Hinkley too, are currently applying for permission to go ahead with the scheme from the Planning Inspectorate. Whether it goes ahead will also depend on agreeing a value-for-money finance deal with the government as well, an issue that sank Hitachi’s proposed Wyfla plant last year.

But on the skills point, Higgs says: “There is a chance that someone who is going into the Welding Centre of Excellence doing virtual reality welding today on a basic entry level course could end up as a craft welder on Sizewell C.

“When the UK pipeline is too small or not yet experienced enough then you have to go to talent wherever it is. You can’t halt a major programme”

“As well as creating a pipeline we want to make sure lessons are learned from other builds such as Flamanville in France where there were very complex welds. It is about maximising right-first-time working. The UK supply chain has to focus on quality.”

Elsewhere EDF has invested in a Construction Skills and Innovation Centre, an Energy Skills Centre, a National College for Nuclear, a Mechanical Centre of Excellence and an Electrical Centre of Excellence as it bids to drive up capabilities.

“The Mechanical Centre of Excellence is all about mock-ups where we are taking critical tasks from other builds so the workforce can practice problems to get things right on site,” says Higgs. “Contractors’ workforces go in there as a training exercise before working on site.”

As well as working closely with colleges and the local enterprise partnership in the South West, Higgs works with a number of bodies including the Infrastructure Skills Planning Group, which brings together different industry bodies to assess workforce demand and supply, to try to maximise the project’s benefit.

She says the training being done now will benefit not only Sizewell C, but also HS2 and the installation of high-speed broadband. EDF will be able to measure its success in upskilling the construction industry if it is given permission to move from Somerset to Suffolk and start again.

“Sizewell C will be a challenge we are in a good position to meet,” says Higgs.

“The industry will be in a better position. When we go east and have a similar target for local workers, young people there will have heard about welding and steel fixing and it might be a little bit more sexy than it used to be.”

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