What skills are needed for a new era in rail?

Continuing with our employer roundtable series, we took a deep dive into the rail industry and how apprenticeships could provide a solution to the ongoing skills shortage in this critical sector.

14 December 2021

Our virtual roundtable event on 25 November 2021, focused on the topic “Addressing Skills Shortages in Rail through Apprenticeship and Inclusion and Diversity”. The event was hosted by City & Guilds’ Paula Gibson and Patrick Craven, drawing on the knowledge of industry experts from railway organisations committed to transformation:

  • Lydia Fairman - Lead Capability and Development Manager, Network Rail
  • Lisa McAteer - Legacy and Engagement Manager & Ability Affinity Network Co-chair, Balfour Beatty Rail
  • Vanessa Wilmot - Head of HR, Balfour Beatty
  • Craig Kirkwood - Engineering Manager, Volker Rail

Opening the floor for discussion, Paul Gibson (Strategic Commercial Manager, City & Guilds) said, “There is an unfortunately negative, and archaic, perception of the rail industry. Only 2% of the respondents to our survey would consider a career in rail, many citing it as “dirty”. Despite the potential in technology fields, it’s just not considered a career of choice and there’s very little understanding of the potential to develop and progress into management roles. If we want to see change, we need to correct these perceptions first.”

Railway reality: an industry in need

Research published in November 2020 by City & Guilds and NSAR, entitled “Back on Track” revealed that the rail industry will face critical shortages in skilled workers by 2025. Some of the findings paint a stark picture of an industry in need of change:

  • Imminent shortages: 120 000 additional workers will be required in various roles over the next 5-10 years, peaking in 2025.
  • Ageing workforce: 28% of the current workforce is over the age of 50. The industry is set to lose 15 000 workers to retirement in 2025.
  • Lacking diversity: Only 16% of the rail workforce is female, and while nearly half of men would consider a career in rail, only 24% of women would consider the same.)

“Additionally,” adds Gibson, “With the skills supply from the EU connected to the implications of Brexit, this will potentially reduce access to skilled overseas workers. These are factors we are all well aware of, but cannot afford to ignore.”

Re-positioning rail for a more inclusive workforce

Our round table discussion uncovered various methods that the rail industry can utilise to attract new workers, with strong evidence that the most promising solutions lie in apprenticeships and driving gender diversity.

Vanessa Wilmot points out the importance of equality, diversity and inclusion, asking the question, “How do you shift the dial in the industry so that more senior leaders are aware of EDI? There is no silver bullet, but you have to be deliberate. Be intentional.” Wilmot goes on to add that organisations need to start by challenging the traditional mindset about what demographics belong in rail, particularly the senior population. This will require bold initiatives that create awareness and initiate open dialogues about the potential for women and minority groups in railway roles. “Be more tuned into perceptions and help people adjust them,” she adds. “Empower workers of all kinds to bring their true self to work.”

Establishing female and minority role models will form a major part of shifting perceptions about the railway industry. Lydia Fairman weighs in on diversity in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics): “If we can’t reach young people before they’ve finished school, we’ve probably already lost them. They will move quickly into more ‘attractive’ industries. That’s why it’s so important to capture them as early as possible. We can support schools by providing role models and accurate information about the opportunities within rail. But what’s really critical is that there is no role model stereotype.”

While rail has historically been seen as a largely manual-labour industry dominated by caucasian males, the opportunities that exist in today’s day and age should level the playing field. Lisa McAteer says, “There are hundreds of career paths in rail, over and above of what we see on a day-to-day basis. Quantity surveyors, analysts, environmentalists… there is a vast array of options suitable to people of all ethnicities, ages and genders.”

To attract and retain a wider pool of talent, these are grassroots conversations that need to happen within rail companies, in schools, and through apprenticeship programs.

McAteer also believes that those who have already journeyed through ‘squiggly careers’ often make ideal candidates for rail apprenticeships. This is due to their diverse skills, adaptability and willingness to progress laterally, instead of aspiring to climb the proverbial corporate ladder. Craig Kirkwood re-emphasises this, saying, “An apprenticeship is not always a lower-level entry into the industry. Progression does not always mean upward into management. Progressions laterally are worth their weight in gold.”

Kirkwood notes that the image of rail is of a victorian industry. There is a perceived lack of personal and professional development. “What’s more,” he adds, “People are looking for greater work-life balance. Financial restraint, lack of resources and lack of skills compound the problem. For women, who are typically more involved in raising families, this balance presents the greatest challenge.”

How can we attract women into careers in rail?

The round table discussion unpacked key efforts that railway organisations and apprenticeship providers can make to provide more attractive opportunities for women. These range from measurable activities, such as ambassadorship initiatives, to more fluid soft skill development. Some of the ideas that our panellists proposed were:

  • Make job advertisements more gender-inclusive so as to reach a wider audience.
  • Create a more flexible approach to working environments, to cater for women with families.
  • Be intentional about building a culture that is welcoming and inclusive. McAteer notes that people need to feel included, which may require positive, passionate representation within organisations that apprentices and prospects can relate to.
  • Use role models wherever possible and create safe spaces where young women/girls can engage with those role models.
  • Wilmot encourages organisations to set goals about what dynamics of diversity they want to achieve.
  • Kirkwood notes that rail organisations can’t only rely on exposure through school. It’s important to create visibility through channels frequently accessed by younger generations, videos, blogs and vlogs, using these platforms to talk about the right culture that exists in rail, the “rail family”, the opportunities, getting real people to talk about their personal lives as rail employees.
  • Fairman also indicates that current entry requirements on graduate schemes are unreasonable and could be re-considered.
  • Promote digitisation within the industry, in order to create greater apprenticeship opportunities within the digital space. Wilmot believes that this will attract younger, more diverse talent.
  • Tap into Kickstart and Bootcamp opportunities, to bring fresh blood into the industry.
  • Create awareness of the barriers that these people face when breaking into the rail industry.

It’s clear that organisations and training providers within the rail industry need to be as innovative as possible, in making the field more accessible to women and minorities. McAteer sheds light on some such innovations, which include day trips for prisoners, ex-offenders and veterans, to allow them exposure to the career opportunities that may exist for these individuals in rail.

Endorsing these projects, McAteer says: “Initiatives like these help people to develop their CV’s, recognise their own value and amplify their transferable skills. While these groups do tend to be male-dominated, intentional and deliberate targeting can create successful recruitment opportunities for people from all walks of life.”

In closing, our panel of experts agreed that the rail industry needs to work at becoming less fragmented in its approach to building a skilled workforce. While healthy competition has its place in any industry, there is also room for collective thinking between organisations through sharing talent, rotating graduates, and creative, flexible apprenticeships that develop highly-skilled and adaptable workers.