Recruitment activity in the highways & infrastructure sector has been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic as is true for all sectors Carrington West cover. In this market update, Director Blayne Cahill, discusses the current situation and explores how the contract market will look over the next six to twelve months.
What has been the impact of the pandemic on the perm and contract highways job market so far?
During the lockdown period we have naturally seen a drop in demand for both temporary and permanent staff. Many of our private sector clients immediately furloughed large swathes of their workforce and implemented temporary recruitment freezes. However, we have started to see these thaw as activity resumes and are experiencing an upturn in demand for both temporary and permanent staff. Our assessment is many see this as an opportune time to attract new talent. The public sector has been required to act very differently to the private sector, seeking to ensure it can maintain core services and retain all staff by redeploying and reskilling, as well as by speeding up certain programmes of work.
Our highway network falling so quiet for several weeks created the perfect opportunity to get certain critical jobs on-site completed sooner, which has fuelled temporary recruitment on some projects. To date, the Government’s Job Retention Scheme has, fortunately, meant many people have retained their jobs. This has equally meant we haven’t seen as many individuals within the highways sector seeking new employment as we anticipated initially, which is good news. It does equally mean the pendulum hasn’t quite swung in the employer’s favour as much as you would expect, and skills shortages still prevail.
How do you see the market performing over the next 6-12 months?
I am confident the highways & infrastructure sector is highly resilient and investment in our infrastructure will be used to help boost the wider economy. There has been a big change in how we approach transport as a result of the pandemic, which has further highlighted the environmental issues we really need to start prioritising. My hope is that investment will be focused on more sustainable transport modes, which will create a new level of demand for certain skills.
Has the pandemic resulted in any major changes in the hiring process?
It’s been great to see our clients adapt and start to arrange interviews via Skype, Teams or Zoom. Long before the pandemic we felt this change was necessary and easily achievable, but change was slow coming. I hope this will prove it is possible to run effective interviews without people having to travel hundreds of miles and spend the night in a hotel. Aside from that, the process of hiring has become slower for a variety of reasons, but again we are seeing things evolve and have seen time-to-hire coming back down, partly as clients refine and adapt their processes.
Are there any regional disparities in hiring activity?
We haven’t noticed any regional disparities but have noticed a very clear split between the private sector and the public sector. The private sector began to ‘hibernate’ almost immediately and was highly cautious, which is exactly as you’d expect. Furlough levels were very high, very quickly. The public sector on the other hand had a much greater responsibility to maintaining basic services, so where gaps have appeared, they have continued to recruit.
Which skills do you think will be most in demand in the coming months?
We would hope and envisage there will be a renewed focus on both temporary and permanent sustainable transport schemes. In the short-term, Transport Planners and Traffic Engineers will, it seems, be very busy getting temporary cycle lanes rolled out in our towns and cities, as well as ensuring our streets can safely facilitate social distancing. Beyond this, I still expect the wider market to bounce back as there have been large spending commitments which we still need to deliver on.
Which sectors/hiring organisations do you expect to be the most active in the 2nd half of 2020?
Many of our private sector clients have slowed down drastically in recent months, so we hope and expect to see a flurry of activity as they start to bring back furloughed staff and resume activity. Whilst many of the major construction projects have done an exceptional job of carrying on, there has been major disruption and I would also expect to see a busy second half of the year here too as they try to ensure they can still meet key deadlines.
With IR35 changes in the private sector put on hold until 2021, have hiring organisations paused their contract reviews or status determinations?
Yes, fortunately the change in legislation was causing major disruption and widespread confusion, despite the best efforts of many! This was a temporary reprieve and organisations have been happy to allow the determination to sit with the PSC for now. We hope we don’t have the same issues again in 2021, but we will certainly be prepared to support our customers once more.
What advice would you give candidates looking for roles in the next 6-12 months?
Do your research and understand how the employers you are considering treated their staff during this period. We have seen examples of good and bad, so understanding whether they adhered to their apparent ‘people first’ philosophy during the difficult times is worth knowing! We expect the market to be relatively resilient, so while you may need to be flexible, you should still understand your value and not undersell yourself. Finally, speak to Carrington West! We can help with both of these and can offer a level of visibility of the entire marketplace you simply won't get without our support.