Wanted: bright graduates, any discipline, to keep UK moving

November 29, 2002

Congestion and a lack of transport planners is causing gridlock in Britain, argues minister John Spellar.

The government's £181 billion Ten-year Plan for Transport is vital if Britain is to sustain a vibrant economy and maintain its international competitiveness. But the plan has highlighted a severe shortfall of transport planners that could hold back investment.

Transport planning is an intellectually demanding and multifaceted job. Today's planners have to achieve dramatic transport change over the next few years, especially in towns and cities, or the nation will slowly grind to a halt.

It is estimated that local authorities and consultants employ 3,500 planners, but to implement government plans, that figure needs to increase by 1,800 over the next three years. But transport-related masters degrees - the traditional route into the profession - will this year turn out only about 100 people, excluding the substantial number of overseas students who study in the UK.

The Transport Planning Society's Transport Planning Skills Initiative, which is part funded by the Department for Transport, aims to address this urgent requirement. The initiative, which I launched at a conference earlier this year, is looking at how more people can be attracted into the profession, and at staff training and retention.

Transport is not perceived as an obvious career choice. There is, therefore, a need to consider ways of raising its profile in schools, colleges and universities. The initiative is also looking at ways to encourage work-experience opportunities for young people at secondary school and at undergraduate level to give them a flavour of the job.

Employers are responding to the shortage by looking at a much wider range of backgrounds for new entrants. This reflects the enormous changes that have taken place in transport. The historic emphasis on infrastructure and engineering has been replaced by policies concerned with managing the way in which we use our transport systems. Understanding travel behaviour and how we can manage demand are more important than ever.

Employers are therefore recruiting staff with a first degree in a wide variety of subjects, in particular the social sciences and arts. Transport planners need to be numerate, so competence in maths, statistics and information and communications technology is important. However, recent research undertaken for the initiative has shown that the primary need is for good interpersonal skills coupled with an ability to communicate.

The research has also revealed a strong need for political awareness. With the increased emphasis on public consultation, this is hardly surprising, but it is also necessary to understand transport policy, the key interactions between land use and transport and the technical aspects of transport.

For those new entrants without a background in transport, who are likely to be in the majority, employers are providing a variety of training. Some are sponsoring recruits on part-time masters courses in transport, providing a broad specialist transport education. Others are providing training focused on meeting the needs of individuals, filling gaps in their knowledge and skills as well as building on the training they are getting while working on projects.

In turn, the training providers are also responding to these new needs, offering a wider set of opportunities through masters and short courses.

Newcastle University offers a masters in transport management, provided jointly by its Transport Engineering Group and its School of Management. Napier University, in Edinburgh, has developed a distance-learning option for its transport masters, which can be taken over five years.

Universities are working closely with employers to meet their specific needs. Working with Transport for London, London University's Centre for Transport Studies, which is based at Imperial College London and University College London, and Westminster University, have developed a set of modules for TfL staff and the London boroughs. These can be taken individually or aggregated to lead to a masters.

Elsewhere, Leeds University's Institute for Transport Studies and its Business School have developed a set of courses for Connex staff. The transport masters at Oxford Brookes, which shares many modules with its town planning course, is also proving particularly popular with employers seeking staff with policy awareness.

But the biggest challenge we still face is in persuading sixth-formers and undergraduates that there are rewarding careers in transport planning.

Anyone considering a career as a transport planner should bear in mind that the shortage of professionals is enabling most able new entrants to progress very rapidly. Early in their careers, planners are finding themselves responsible for managing significant projects as well as dealing with politicians, clients and members of the public. It is a great career opportunity for the ambitious graduate who wants the opportunity to help shape the transport policies, systems and services that are central to all of our lives.

John Spellar is minister for transport.

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