The great Brasilian photographer, Sebastiao Salgado, compiled a book of photographs featuring workers all over the world – Trabajadores. Vivid images of thousands of unskilled workers clambering up the side of an open mine, others tethering flimsy bamboo scaffolding to the sides of iconic skyscrapers and chain gangs moving materials by hand bring home an image of people as a dispensible resource.

Low pay, poor conditions, antique equipment all conspire to hold productivity in a time warp in a misguided notion that a swarm of unskilled labour is a cheaper route to project completion. At root, the quick buck versus sustainable growth debate is all about skills …

Reliable sources in the Insurance industry confirm that over 75% of accidents at work are caused by human error – poorly trained workers using ever more complex machinery badly. However, in the majority of the emerging world there are no recorded accidents-at-work statistics. If someone is injured; get someone else, is the harsh reality. And that is when times are good.

Then, along comes the current recession. Globally, the construction industry has been hit hard. In some places real estate projects have fallen apart as value in the housing market collapses. Elsewhere, infrastructure projects have not been wiped out but postponed – as project sponsors use deflationary pressures on fuel and materials to “review” budgets forcing suppliers to drive costs down. Either way we face dislocation in that vital element of future growth – skilled labour.

The skills agenda is not something to park as we wait for an upturn. The risk is that we could dislocate all manner of performance improvement initiatives and, as jobs are lost career options collapse. What does this mean?

1. Skilled Labour Pool. All along the supply chain from ports to logistics parks materials handling equipment is ever more sophisticated. It is a nonsense to suppose that new hires can learn all the tricks of the trade on-the-job. Time to standard and performance improvements are simply not possible under such conditions. Take port crane operators. Learning on the job is a hugely risky business when the equipment itself is worth well over $15 million! Imagine handing the keys to a Ferrari to a first time driver.

Action needed: Is industry doing enough to understand future skills needs – even in a downturn? Is industry setting up career development plans or, simply focussing on jobs with no context? In the current environmental climate – is industry maximising the use of simulator based training? This can simulate accidents before they happen and, do so at a massively reduced carbon footprint.

2. Competency. Maintainance and training are the first casulaties of any down turn. And yet, as Professor Rod Cross of Strathclyde University has emphasised, the unemployed are not like a perishable you can put in a fridge and take out when you need them.

If we do not keep faith with the need to develop skills we face the prospect of a lost generation across the developed and emerging world alike. In places like India this will turn the demographic dividend of the Republic of the Young into a seedbed of discontent.

Action needed: Labour is more mobile than ever. There is a need for global competency standards and mandatory recording of accidents in order to monitor progress and, learn how best to improve. How can this be funded? Why not pull together industry leaders, the insurance industry and government to fund vocational training through discounts in insurance premiums? This can have a direct impact on performance of both workers and machines.

3. Turning off the tap. Many parts of the world depend on remitances to survive. Witness the Western Union booths all over the emerging world and the billions that move back every week to support families and, invest in microprojects or even local development projects. There are over 3 million Indians, Bangladeshis and Pakistani manual and construction workers in the UAE alone. Paid 3 to 5 dirhams (about $1) an hour, they make up the highest proportion of construction costs and they have little or no employment protection. Conditions in work camps may be dire – they are far better than they were – but the impact of lay offs is felt in a much wider geography.

Action needed. Labour regulation and protection is not just the short route to strike action – it can be a way to develop common standards and improve performance.

4. Gender. Skill is not unique to man and more has to be done to develop roles and responsibilities for women in the logistics and infrastructure industries worldwide.

Action needed. Mentoring and distance learning initiatives can help to close the gap fast. What is being done? can it be scaled up?

5. Blended learning. Universities and Colleges across the developed world work to a model of traying to attract students to their campus. It is expensive and is not helping to build capacity where it is needed.

Action: Extend the learning initiatives from degree level to vocational short courses and open this up to a wider base through blended distance learning approaches. Continous life long learning will be the order of the day.

As politicians all over the world champion infrastructure projects as the motor out of the current recession – Obama is already promoting a Federal spend of $1 trillion on logistics infrastructure to rival the New Deal – questions need to be asked about the skills that will be needed to make things happen – even as the recession bites. After all, when any upturn comes, where are we going to find the skills to complete future projects on time and in full?

Logistics skills all along the supply chain are needed as the platform to transform economies and outcomes. As Governmnets worldwide shore up the balance sheets of failed banks with the hard earned cash from taxpayers; they should take heed that commensurate investment in  infrastructure projects will require skill to deliver them. As noted above, a failure to do so is to turn the demographic dividend of youth into a seedbed of discontent.