June 01, 2017

Rail should broaden its recruitment horizons

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THE railway industry faces a serious skills shortage for three main reasons: a high proportion of employees, particularly among operators, are approaching retirement age, the current level of investment which calls for large number of skilled engineers to implement projects, and rapid changes in technology requiring new skill sets.

The problem is compounded by the fact that rail is competing with other employers and industries which often seem more appealing to potential candidates. To be blunt, rail, together with civil and mechanical engineering, is often regarded as an old smoke-stack industry especially in countries which do not have high-profile high-speed networks which have helped to change attitudes to rail. Rail is also seen as unattractive because of its unsocial working hours and its traditional working practices, some jobs may involve getting your hands dirty, and there does not appear to be a clear career path, especially from train operating jobs to managerial positions.

While progress is being made to broaden the appeal of the rail industry, clearly a lot more needs to be done, and there is no quick fix. Organisations need to adopt long-term recruitment strategies which start with schoolchildren in order to sow the seeds for a career in rail and by explaining what courses they should select at university or technical college which would steer them into disciplines that are suitable for a railway career.

But you need to start with young children, as Mr Mark Lomas, head of equality, diversity and inclusion with HS2, Britain, pointed out during a presentation at last month’s Railtex exhibition: “By the age of eight, children have already decided what their career preferences are,” he told delegates.

Organisations also need to think through their entire recruitment process to ensure that their appeal is as broad as possible, and that they are not excluding large chunks of the population. Rail is regarded by many women as a male-dominated industry unsuited to female candidates, which is intimidating. As our feature on women in rail (June 2017) demonstrates, women still only account for a small proportion of the rail industry’s workforce. A joint survey by two European railway associations, CER and EIM, and the European Transport Federation (ETF) shows that while the proportion of female employees in eight comparable European railways grew from 17.25% in 2010 to 19.5% in 2013, it actually peaked at 19.8% in 2014 and declined slightly to 19.7% a year later. But even the best performing European railways are not doing markedly better with Norway and Poland on 30%, Germany 23% and France 20%. The challenge for freight-only railways is even greater. For example, only 8% of Canadian National’s employees were women in 2015.

There is also a disparity between different railway jobs. Out of the 19 railways surveyed, women accounted for 16% of engineers, 21% of traffic management staff, 17.2% of managers, just 2% of locomotive drivers, but 32% of onboard personnel.

Apart from the persistent pay gap between men and women, which needs to be addressed, removing rigid working practices which favour men would make rail a far more attractive career choice for women. There needs to be far more flexibility in terms of working hours, with the option to work from home wherever possible. Where shift working is required, long-term planning is needed so that staff can plan child care well in advance.

There are other sectors of the employment market which railways and many other industries largely ignore: people with disabilities, ethnic minorities and even people who not necessarily have the right academic qualifications but possess other qualities which may be more relevant to the job on offer.

For example, there is little point in providing braille signs in offices if blind or visually-impaired people cannot apply for a job with your organisation because your website is not designed with disabled people in mind.

Disabled people are able to use special tools that convert website pages into large text for reading by people with poor eyesight, audio for blind people to hear and follow the content via speakers, braille for deaf/blind people to read with their fingers, and text-only versions for people with slow internet.

This obviates the need to provide large-text or special versions of your website, as the user’s computer converts content into the desired format, providing that the website’s pages have been created correctly. Website designers need to use standard HTML code, provide text descriptions for images, captions for video and use HTML structural elements such as headings in a logical manner. None of this should alter the website’s appearance, but it does mean that these special tools or assistive technologies work properly. The HS2 website has been built to comply with these standards.

Lomas says HS2 has also piloted a new recruitment process called blind auditing which does not require candidates to submit an application form or CV. “The results are stunning in getting women, black or disabled people to apply for jobs with us,” he said.

Rail will do itself a disservice if it continues to cut itself off from large numbers of potential employees simply because recruitment processes and terms of employment are too rigid and outdated: time for a rethink and for more flexibility.

David Briginshaw

David Briginshaw joined IRJ in 1982 as associate editor, and was appointed editor-in-chief in 2001. He has travelled the world extensively interviewing many of the CEOs and senior managers of the world's railways and transit systems which has given him an in-depth knowledge of the global railway industry.

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