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Rail industry evolves but ‘skills gap’ remains a threat to growth.

Posted by Luke Upton on Jul 9, 2015

Nework_Rail_Apprentices"Engineering has to be restored to its rightful status as a quality long-term career.”

As the rail industry changes and evolves, a host of leading experts have warned that it is struggling to recruit and retain the staff needed to continue this growth. In the first of series of features looking at the challenges of staffing in the modern rail industry, we focus first on the UK, home to several large infrastructure developments. These projects include Crossrail, the new high frequency, high capacity railway for London and the South East, the longest new domestic railway to be constructed in over 100 years Borders Railway in Scotland, the Northern Hub and not forgetting the ambitious High-Speed 2 shuffling through the planning stages amongst a host of others. But why during a time of relatively high-unemployment is there a recruitment gap for jobs that often remunerate well, offer clear career progression and the opportunity for overseas travel and work?

The recent Tomorrow’s Rail Conference in London made the challenges of the skills gap, recruitment and retention one its key themes. Opening up the event Mark Carne, Chief Executive of Network Rail on outlining their ambitious plans for a ‘digital railway’ hit a cautionary note in admitting that making rail exciting to young people is a challenge but as the skills required for rail staff changed, a solution to this had to be found.

Howard Collins OBE, Chief Executive of Sydney Trains and an ex-COO of Transport for London spoke with real passion about the challenge of the skills gap. A 35 year veteran of the transport industry, he argued that there needs to be a change in how engineering jobs and apprentices are perceived, beginning with the parents: "Let’s stop the coffee-table talk of sons and daughters being dentists or doctors. They should be proud of them being engineers & apprentices.” Collins also highlighted another challenge, that of a “brain-drain” out of the UK and into fast growing regions of the world in particular Australia, the Middle East and Asia. He urges the industry to “think global” when it comes to recruitment and to welcome people not just from around world, but also from other industries such as airlines and digital whose expertise he described as “essential for the future”.

The UK Institution of Mechanical Engineers sees the root of the problem in schools with pupils receiving poor careers advice from teachers who lack understanding of the potential of engineering. Peter Finegold, Head of Education and Skills at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, said: “We presently face a massive skills gap in the UK and it’s absolutely vital that we are encouraging young people to study Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects and take one of the many highly rewarding careers that science and engineering have to offer.” As a response they launched in October 2014, a new Teacher Industrial Partners’ Scheme (TIPS), which will see STEM teachers being offered two-week work placements within industry to help them better explain the highly diverse career opportunities to their students.

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers Work’s focus on work in schools was a point reiterated by several of the commercial companies on the agenda such as Thales and Costain who are similarly focussed on the recruitment challenge. Whilst apprenticeships were held up as a big part of the solution – they collapsed with the decline of industry in the 1980s, but were revived by Labour in the 1990s and have continued to be supported by recent governments. Chris Sexton, Technical Director of Crossrail discussed at Tomorrow’s Rail that they have over 450 apprentices working across the project from construction to accountancy, quantity surveying and business administration. See the video below for more.

Writing in the Evening Standard in his capacity as a rail fan and owner of a rail heritage maintenance business that hires apprentice engineers, rather than a record producer, Pete Waterman summed up the issue neatly: “The real challenge in this country is the need to create the skills for a generation. Heathrow, mega-rail schemes, trams, Tube or roads they all need new skills and we simply do not have the people pipeline to make this happen… Engineering has to be restored to its rightful status as a quality long-term career.”

Editors’ Comment: In features over the next month we’ll look at the role of women and armed forces veterans in overcoming the rail industry skills gap. But it was striking that at the Tomorrow’s Rail event, amidst the mega-projects, cutting-edge technology and global innovations discussed, it was the very human challenge of recruitment that kept coming back onto the agenda. Rail sector work is often portrayed as being a man in a high-vis jacket battling the rain as he fixes a broken line on the track. There is an element of accuracy in this of course, but it’s a far more diverse industry than many think. And this diversity needs to be promoted much more along with the potential for personal development and high levels of pay being made obvious. The industry must do more to ensure they have the staff to keep up with the demands and technology of tomorrow’s rail sector or miss out on this golden opportunity.

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Topics: projects

Luke Upton

Written by Luke Upton

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