The PFI sector provides unique opportunities for SPVs, local authorities, FM service providers and other key stakeholder companies to give young people longstanding careers.
It is crucial for PFI to become an attractive sector to the next generation of professionals in order to build an expert workforce that will handle many transition periods and handovers in the coming decades, and help innovate the next phase of PPPs in the UK. Additionally, the complexity of PFI projects requires input from many people with a wide range of expertise, so newly qualified early careers professionals will be a valuable inclusion to this mix.
Many already in the sector have taken the opportunity to create extensive professional networks that benefit them to the end of their careers and allow them insight from various industries which they can use in their role. It is crucial that this same opportunity is afforded to young people to create even more PPP professionals with diverse thought and experience on PFIs.
Learning and Development
Young people will bring new ways of thinking to the handback process, feeding into the databank of best practice guidance and solutions for the sector. This will give them direct involvement and influence over the future of PFI. Building this talent pool now will benefit the sector as the number of PFI professionals is decreasing, and demand for their expertise has increased their value over the last decade. Additionally, project handback, public/private sector relationship building, and stakeholder management experience will each be very valuable in the initialisation of new joint ventures and other large-scale future PPP projects across various sectors.
Early careers professionals should be brought in now to benefit from the on-the-job learning still to be done around how best to work through the handback process in the short term as new methodologies for handback continue to be originated. They will be able to get firsthand experience with specialists in the field, including those who helped to set up the original projects giving them touchstones on how to establish new ones in the future.
They will also bring original thought to contracts as they experience the PFI process for the first time, and may be able to ask different questions that improve ways of working on a project, especially if there is a culture there that facilitates curiosity and a two-way dialogue.
For those who work on PFI handback now, the role is all about learning. “You have to understand the contract,” says Brian Jenkinson, ex-director at facilities management specialist Apleona. “People think it’s about having particular skills or understanding buildings, but you need to understand the contract and the people you’re working with far more than the air handling units, electrical systems, and so on.” All parties need to be willing to learn what the others need and what the contract requires to bring a workable solution to the table.
“Entering the PFI sector requires a holistic skill set that combines financial prowess, legal acumen, communication finesse, project management skills, and more,” adds Tom Dewar, sector head for handback at Semperian Assurance Services. “Professionals of all backgrounds have a place within this dynamic arena, as long as they are willing to cultivate these skills and embrace the sector's unique challenges. By doing so, they can not only contribute meaningfully to the development of critical infrastructure and services but also forge a rewarding and impactful career path within the sector.”
Young people therefore should be recruited from a range of different backgrounds, trained on the contract, and given the space to make an impact and meaningful change.
It is crucial that businesses within the industry respect that it will take anyone new to the contract time to familiarise themselves with it. Even at the senior, experienced level, each PFI contract is unique and any new starters on the contract will need time to review and understand the nuances of the contract they’re working on. Anyone from outside of PFI or returning to the sector after some time out of it will likely need some initial (re)training, be it developing technical skills or grasping the intricacies of a specific contract and companies should facilitate this to build effective teams.
This may seem resource intensive, however it is essential (as many have seen), as there simply isn’t a large enough group of people with expert experience to fulfil all of the needs in businesses across the sector. Companies will have to become more comfortable with looking outside of the sector for talent.
Building the talent pool is crucial. Young people have great skills to bring to these large infrastructure projects, including a strong awareness of environmental and sustainability concerns, a higher degree of social responsibility, and familiarity with technology. Young professionals with these focuses and qualifications in relevant subjects can start adding value quickly, while learning the ropes in PFI.
And PFI can be an incredibly rewarding sector to work in professionally early in your career. As Patrick Hamill, commercial director at management services provider Vercity explains: “If you think about an SPV, there are senior roles on a contract that runs like a multi-million pound business with a big impact on the community where it is based. That gives great opportunities to develop your skills and gain new experience. There are people out there doing that by the time they’re 30. Where else will people in the early stages of their career get that opportunity, other than PFI?”
He continues: “As an industry we don’t always do enough to sell the scale of the work we do, the positive impacts it has, and the variety of situations people can be exposed to. We don’t talk in that way because it’s day-to-day for us, it’s normalised, so we don’t use that language.” But for people outside of the industry, it’s an education piece to show the opportunities in PFI.
As a sector we need to promote the value add of the successful running of the estate to the local community and asset users. So much of what we hear of is when projects go wrong, but we need to share the fact that working on a PFI gives people a sense of doing work that adds value whilst also giving the opportunity to be responsible for large budgets and estates. This will attract talented and capable people to the sector.
That sense of value is central to work in FM, says operations director at Vercity, Jon Brazier. “I’ve had more rewarding experiences in FM than I ever got in manufacturing. I think the message is, it’s not just bogs and boilers, what you get involved in is significant. There is a genuine emotional feeling here that if you ask people, ‘Who do you work for?’, they won’t say the service provider’s name, they’ll say ‘MoD’. Because you are part of something bigger. And you absolutely get that in an FM environment like a hospital, a school, or anything like that.”
Young people greatly value that sense of purpose when they talk about what they want from work, and the education sector has responded to this inclination by providing courses and qualifications which focus directly on ESG, sustainability, and asset management. PFI stakeholder companies should take advantage of this new expertise, especially around sustainability as the decarbonisation of the public sector estate is essential.
According to Jenkinson: “These Net Zero targets are going to have a profound impact on the remaining lifecycle plans. Some very stable projections retained over many years may well go out of the triple-glazed window. The result is likely to be multiple new projects and variations required over what was anticipated (in the original plans) to be a stable, low-risk contract period.”
Thus, there are crucial conversations taking place across this area, including how to finance EV charging and Net Zero critical infrastructure, use of renewables, data centres, and engaging with offshore transmission. Bringing enthusiastic young professionals who have been shown to really care about adding value in their careers into PFI can be a distinct value-add to businesses who are likely to retain an engaged and passionate workforce.
Young professionals will diversify the sector more, bringing new ideas and an eagerness to make a difference. They will benefit from working with experienced professionals on complex contracts with a steep learning curve, as well as taking on a role with direct impacts on lives and communities. Rightly, people in the industry are concerned that as PFI contracts sunset, the sector becomes more and more unattractive for new professionals.
Brazier makes the positive case for young professionals and newcomers to the sector. “The PFI model is winding down,” he acknowledges, “however there will still be a requirement to deliver FM services, administer asset management and lifecycle programmes, and manage further projects post contract expiry. The human skills, knowledge and expertise built up over decades of provision is as critical an asset as the plant, equipment and information systems handed back.”
There is now an opportunity to give specialised PFI experience to a group of young people who will be retained in the sector for years to come, including post transition as the shape of services changes.
Contracts will never cease to be delivered. New PPP formats will be innovated. And the original PFI model is far from over. Many contracts still have 30 years until expiry, making PFI a stable choice for young professionals and must be marketed as such. A guaranteed 25+ year career is a strong lure for many school leavers and early careers professionals who see the future of work as very uncertain. Recent research from ADP Research Institute found 50% of Gen Z say they feel insecure in their current job, so providing a career with longevity and stability should be an attraction to people with the skills the sector needs.
Tim Cooper, SPV director at facilities management provider Bellrock, suggests there is a gap in the market for generalists: “Seasoned and experienced players with an operations background who understand the demands of the multiple user groups on a contract, as well as the people pressure of running operations. I know a few shining examples of this type of operator and no two of them are from the same background. This opens up the opportunity in PFI for talent from all career paths to enter.”
As an industry, we can start having those long-term conversations about funding and improving infrastructure with the young professionals who will be implementing and creating the next lot of projects for the next 30+ years. Having a new, diverse group in the sector now will benefit partnerships down the line, and will support the long-term UK infrastructure strategy, including updated estates in defence, education, healthcare, and other public sector areas, large-scale innovative public transport options and alternatives to driving, wiring and national grid upgrades, broadened broadband provision, existing building stock decarbonisation and more.
As a sector, we need to be prepared for newcomers, as there aren’t enough people with the necessary skills for PFI handback who also already have in-depth PFI experience. And if we’re looking at bringing those people in from other sectors anyway, we need to also be thinking about how we can bring young professionals in as part of that drive for new talent.
Dewar puts it this way: “The benefits of young professionals entering the sector extend far beyond their personal development and career growth. By bringing fresh perspectives and innovative solutions to the table, those in early careers contribute to the overall advancement of the sector. Their contributions enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of projects, positively impacting infrastructure development, public services, and economic growth.”
Employers have a part to play in facilitating this exchange of perspective and expertise, and they need to be prepared to support and train people through their probation and into their role, and to help them to make the transition into PFI. But that will only go so far. What will really benefit the industry is a concerted effort from all stakeholders to share positive industry stories and successes, and share widely the sense of value one gets from a career where you can really make a difference.