Crossrail chief executive Mark Wild made headlines this week when he reportedly told a London Assembly committee there was a “big risk” that the mega project could “lose people to HS2”.
One would expect for those responsible for building one major rail line to look to another sizeable rail scheme in the same country for resources. Indeed were it not for a series of delays, the Elizabeth Line would have been open two years ago and key engineers could have long moved on to the first phase of rapid rail from London to Birmingham.
But then major projects rarely run entirely smoothly, and getting your staffing decisions right despite an ever-changing landscape is one of the biggest challenges – and most critical factors in success. This will continue to be a big focus for High Speed 2, Crossrail and myriad other big schemes…
As Wild said: “Over the next six to nine months securing those specialist resources is going to be a big priority.”
There are a wide range of factors to consider when recruiting and retaining staff for major projects. Let’s take a look at some tips below…
When lining up staff for a big programme of work, it is critical to see the project from all angles. Below are some of the key factors to consider when you’re considering the type of people you want to bring in.
1. Project type
Of course, HS2 chiefs will look to other big rail projects such as Crossrail for certain skillsets.
However, even here it is important to consider which skills are actually transferrable and which are not. Just because HS2 and Crossrail are both rail mega projects it doesn’t mean the challenges and skills needed are identical. It is important to consider a range of factors. Is it a “greenfield” or “brownfield” project? Are the engineering standards the same? Are there particularly unique access or environmental constraints? Has someone been brought into one project to deliver a specialism that won’t exist on the next?
Once you start to get into the detail, you realise that you don’t have to stick rigidly to projects in the same sector of construction. How different is a major rail station to an airport terminal? And is the main civils construction of a brand new railway such as HS2 actually far removed from the linear production of building a new road? It’s important to remain open minded.
2. Build method
At least as important as looking at what you’re building, when recruiting staff for big projects, is considering how you will be doing it.
Is the challenge of your project how to deliver large scale earthworks or the commissioning of a complex control system? Will you have to work in a tight city centre plot with logistical challenges? If there is tunnelling involved – what will the ground conditions be how similar are they to recent UK tunnelling projects? What skills do you need in certain roles to ensure the benefits are maximised and the challenges overcome? And where will you look for these?
Is offsite manufacturing going to be a big part of your project and do you need to look for people who have delivered in this area rather than on traditional in-situ builds? Might you need to look outside construction in some cases?
Sometimes you might seek out certain individuals from projects that look very different to yours on paper but involved key elements that you need experience of.
Also big projects are by their nature often very diverse. Think about what you think the biggest challenges are in different areas and target your recruitment accordingly.
3. Commercial model
It is easy to overlook the importance of the commercial delivery model when recruiting for many senior roles on major schemes. If a highly collaborative commercial model is in place in line with Project 13 or an alliancing structure this will require very different leadership behaviours from many other major projects.
We previously assisted a client a few years ago who had just won a heavy civil engineering scheme with a hard-nosed private client on a fixed price lumpsum contract. It was quite an old-school commercial arrangement for UK construction, far removed from the typical NEC3 target cost arrangement the contractor was used to for similar UK projects.
As such we helped them fill certain key roles with ex-pat Brits working overseas who had recent experience of FIDIC lump sum contracts and knew how to manage the contract, this proved critical in the success of the project.
Look at the contracts you will be operating under and the types of pressures you will be facing, then look for projects that operated in those models for people to help you prosper.
Have an eye on the size and public profile of your project and look for people who have worked on a similar scale in the past, at least for some key positions. Have individuals proved they can handle the scrutiny, stress and politics in their work?
Looking for similar projects to your own is important for recruiting well – but broaden the way you think about your scheme and others so you can get the specific skills and experiences you need.
Once you have the right senior staff in the right positions, you then have an even bigger challenge – keeping them there. By their nature, these people will be in high demand.
So what are your options to keep people where they are?
1. Pay a retention bonus
Sometimes referred to as golden handcuffs, some organisations may be able to offer key project staff a significant sum of money to be paid if they remain in post until the end of a project – or until their own role on the project is complete.
This can work well but the problem with any financial incentive is that it can always be matched or bettered by a poaching employer.
And of course it is expensive, eating into project staffing budgets. Indeed for many project organisations in the public sector, it simply won’t be feasible at all for governance reasons. What else can you do?
2. Plan your pipeline
Where possible, it’s always best to have another role for your valued employees to move onto when your project completes. This is not always easy on big schemes but there are huge rewards when you can plan to create smooth transitions for teams from one project to the next.
You save yourself an expensive headache recruiting afresh each time as well as making sure people stay together to finish what they start. We have seen a growth in the use of alliances and frameworks partly to help clients build cohesive teams that deliver again and again and get better over time.
Of course some big projects really are stand-alone entities that fully disband on completion so we need to have another strategy.
3. Build relationships with recruiters
Your immediate instinct when you get hold of a brilliant employee in a senior role may well be to put the barriers up around them and ward off all suitors. But actually, this can be counter-productive towards the end of a project.
By actively building positive relationships with those managing other big projects, as well as with recruiters and executive search specialists, you can offer to help your staff manage the transition to the next project. By showing your people that you’re happy to help them move into the right role for them when the time is right, they are less likely to panic and move into any job that becomes available towards the end of their stint on your project.
This collaborative approach can work for everyone, it just needs a bit of time and attention.