Business case on Crossrail: Skills on the line

Next March, work will start on the tunnels needed underneath London for the 21 kilometre Crossrail network – the biggest engineering project in Europe

Organisation: Crossrail

Sector: Railways

Track record:

  • Covering 21km with 37 stations, the Crossrail line will run from Maidenhead and Heathrow, west of London, to Shenfield and Abbey Wood in the east
  • Crossrail will be the biggest addition to the south-east railway network for 50 years, and is costing £14.8bn
  • At its peak, the construction of Crossrail is expected to deploy 15,000 people
  • A minimum of 400 apprenticeships will be offered, with a particular focus on employing young people

Business strategy

Coming three years after the Crossrail Act allowing the railway to be built received royal assent, this will mark the first major construction work of the £14.8 billion project.

It’s a decade since Crossrail was formed as a limited company tasked with promoting and developing a solution for the congestion clogging the capital’s transport network.

After a great deal of stakeholder and public consultation – and both negative and positive publicity – Crossrail has also become responsible for overseeing the railway’s construction.

Now a fully-owned subsidiary of Transport for London, the company currently employs about 300 people, but also works with what it calls a ­client organisation, made up of two partners, employing around 800 people between them. To make matters even more complicated, each of these partners consists of several companies. So the project delivery partner is a consortium of engineering and project management firm Bechtel and specialists Halcrow and Systra. This consortium’s primary responsibility will be designing and managing the tunnel section.

Crossrail’s programme partner is Transcend, a joint venture between AECOM, CH2M Hill and Nichols Group. This consortium will integrate and manage the entire construction programme. In addition to the client organisation, Crossrail has a number of other industry partners, including Network Rail, Canary Wharf Group and BAA, each with responsibilities for delivering different parts of the programme.

An extensive supply chain currently includes 12 principal contractors. As the programme progresses, many of these contractors will be replaced by others to reflect the changing nature of the work. Contractors will also sub-contract their own specialists. “It’s huge,” says Valerie Todd, director of talent and resources at Crossrail. “We could look at this [project] from so many dimensions, from how we develop the organisational culture, to how we manage organisational change and manage performance when working across multiple boundaries, and how we use skills and employment.”

And, like any project – but especially one as high profile as Crossrail – it’s essential that it is finished on time, within budget and at the right quality, Todd adds.

HR challenges

Todd has strategic and operational responsibility for people management across the entire project. “This means that I not only concern myself with the directly employed people at Crossrail, but I am also responsible for ensuring that partners and contractors have the right people in the right places at the right time, who are suitably trained, across the whole project,” she says.

As an HR challenge, the Crossrail project has been – and will continue to be throughout the construction – enormous. The partner organisations have been integrated with Crossrail, with Todd taking responsibility for ensuring that recruitment arrangements are robust and effective. “We need to make sure we clearly describe the roles we want [the partners] to fill and ensure we fill them with the people we believe are confident and capable and enthused to work with us as part of an integrated team,” she says.

“This means we have to consider the culture, how we manage performance collectively, talent management and resource planning – the whole kit and caboodle.”

Principal contractors work with Crossrail in a manner more typical of a contractual arrangement for supplier services, with Todd providing the organisations with guidelines for recruiting to senior posts.

“When we write our contract documents, I need to make sure I am satisfied that they understand what kind of people we need and when we’ll need them,” she says. “I also need to ensure they understand our obligations to manage worksites harmoniously, paying attention to health and safety, industrial relations and welfare facilities – anything that touches employment.”

It is clearly not always easy to know when to intervene and support contractors and when to step back and let them resolve issues themselves. But, says Todd, getting employees of the different organisations aligned around the goals of completing the project on time, on budget and to the right quality has helped Crossrail meet this challenge. “We are getting employees to think about how they can own those three goals,” she says.

Having transparent performance management arrangements has helped too. “If we have a milestone where we have multiple companies working together to make sure that milestone is reached, we have to have arrangements for ensuring that is actually going to happen,” she explains.

Key initiatives

To begin tackling some of these challenges, the organisation “took a step back and had a complete review” at the end of 2010 to ensure it was match-fit to begin construction work. This review was also a response to a £1 billion loss in funding for the project after the coalition government’s comprehensive spending review in October 2010.

In the reorganisation that followed the review, some of Crossrail’s central departments were placed next to worksites to improve communications with the client organisation. New people have also been brought in to make up skills shortfalls and some people have left. “Difficult decisions were made, but we did an awful lot of engagement and explaining the rationale for change,” Todd says. “Six months on, I’m reassured employees felt it was not only well-managed, but was absolutely the right thing to do.”

The reorganisation has also involved the introduction of a matrix management structure in which different central functions, including talent and resourcing, feed directly into the work that contractors are doing, via the client organisation. “This integrated team was necessary to ensure that each person in each team had absolute clarity about their role,” Todd says. “And it tells them to support the principal contractors as they come on board because that is where the benefit is really derived when you get people working in partnership.”

For contractors, there is a three-month planned integration phase, funded by Crossrail. Colin Eddie, managing director at Morgan Sindall, part of the BBMV Consortium, which has won the contract to construct the station tunnels, took part in this process, which is designed to ensure optimum integration between client and contractors. “It’s always been an aspiration of Crossrail to get buy-in, a fully integrated approach,” says Eddie.

“This phase is intended for contractors to bring ideas to the table, and for success we need to have fully integrated teams. Otherwise it could turn into an adversarial approach – that won’t get us anywhere,” he says. A redefinition of the management hierarchy, undertaken as part of the reorganisation, has also helped the integration process. The senior management team remains the same, but as Crossrail moves into the main construction of the railway, project managers for different contractors will become part of the senior team because they manage worksites.

“We will include principal contractors in the decision making processes and will consult them far more than we would have done before we started the construction,” Todd says. “Seniority is now defined by the importance of a role at a given time, as opposed to hierarchy.”

Skills strategy

The nature of the Crossrail delivery plan means different roles will be important at different times. Seventy thousand people will be employed through the supply chain across the life of the project, and at its peak there will be about 15,000 roles to be filled, many of which will be specialist. This resourcing need, and the requirements under the Crossrail Act to leave benefits for local communities, has resulted in a sharp focus on the skills required to carry out the project.

Claire Parry, head of skills and employment at Crossrail, is responsible for leading the project’s extensive skills strategy, which focuses on health and safety and inspiring future talent, whether school leavers or career changers.

Part of the skills strategy has been the development of the £12.5 million Tunnelling and Underground Construction Academy (TUCA) in Ilford, East London, which includes a mock-up of a 40-metre tunnel. Funded by Crossrail and the Skills Funding Agency, the academy is designed to cover a shortfall in skilled tradespeople with experience of working underground.

The provision will cover anything from entry-level training to NVQ level 2, up to NVQ level 4. In keeping with Crossrail’s integrated approach, an advisory panel with representatives from the construction sector in the south-east, as well as major contractors, will support the development of the academy’s curriculum.

Colin Eddie, who sits on the panel, says: “The number of skills resources in the UK is less than 10 per cent of the total resources needed for Crossrail. We will, for example, be taking bricklayers and turning them into people who can work efficiently underground.”

But the academy can’t possibly offer all the training needed for the Crossrail project. As construction reaches its peak, about 3,500 roles will be based underground, with the remaining 11,500 on the surface. “Those roles will be anything from tile fitting to engineering, every kind of trade imaginable,” Parry says. To train people in these roles, her department has developed a skills network that, alongside TUCA, will deliver all of Crossrail’s skills requirements.

Supply and demand

“We’ve done a big piece of skills and labour forecasting, looking across the entire project at what the skills requirements are going to be,” Parry says. “And we’ve identified where we think those skills gaps will be.” For example, if new nuclear power stations are built in Britain, a lot of the construction skills that will be needed will be the same as for the Crossrail programme.

“We’ve also looked at the location of the worksites across London and done some mapping around them – the contracts, the location of skills providers and other support services in the area,” Parry says, adding that this is the first time that supply and demand have been matched in this way. Funding for the project will come from local authorities, commercial training, the Skills Funding Agency and the European Social Fund.

Crossrail will be targeting people who have been out of work for more than six months or who are unemployed in London, with TUCA offering them pre-employment training. While there won’t necessarily be a job for them on Crossrail after the training, Parry hopes they will develop the employability and transferable skills that employers are looking for.

Tackling youth unemployment is also a central goal of Crossrail’s skills strategy. A framework called Young Crossrail has been set up by Todd’s team to communicate with schools based along the Crossrail route about the importance of safety on construction sites and railways, and engage with children who may be interested in the project. Two work placement programmes for teenagers are also offered on the project.

This ties in with Crossrail’s commitment to provide a minimum of 400 one- to two-year apprenticeships for young people on the project, either with the client organisation or principal contractors. “We want to give young people the opportunity to experience major projects, because they can provide a really rich career, with travel all over the world,” Todd says.

Learning points

The subject of skills is close to Todd’s heart because, in addition to her role with Crossrail, she is also a commissioner for the UK Commission for Employment and Skills.

Arguing that employers need to be ambitious about raising skills levels, not just in their own businesses but in their industry as a whole, she says: “Employers can’t sit back and moan that the skills aren’t there if they don’t take some ownership of the skills agenda.”

But that’s not the only lesson the Crossrail project has taught Todd. Previously managing director responsible for HR at Transport for London, she says: “There is nothing like a project to actually test your skills and abilities as a leader, as a director of a people management function. You have to land quickly and be an excellent team player because there is no room for ego in a project. You don’t have a lot of thinking time.”

Not many people know exactly what they will be doing several years down the line, but with the delivery plan for Crossrail finalised up until its opening in 2018, Todd is an exception. And that, she says, “is exciting, but a little bit scary at the same time”.