May 07, 2009

Rail must address skills shortage

Written by  Chris Acton
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Chris Acton, director of British railway engineering and design consultancy Tritech Rail, highlights the continuing skills shortage in the industry, which he says is threatening business growth and the future development of the rail network in Britain.

THE serious shortage of engineering and design skills in the rail industry is a continuing problem which needs to be addressed urgently. In 2004, Network Rail (NR) was forced to fly in 12 mechanical engineers from India to ensure that part of  the West Coast Main Line modernisation project was completed on time. This highlighted an issue which has been a problem for some time and continues to be so now.
Both small and big players in the sector are experiencing major difficulties in filling vacancies, mainly because of a shortage of people with relevant knowledge and experience. This is apparent at all levels in specific technical and practical skills areas, but especially at the higher end, among professional engineers.
This lack of the “right people” is having a hugely damaging effect on businesses working in the railway industry, restricting growth, increasing pressure on existing staff, and creating an escalation in salaries for well-trained employees which some consultancies find difficult to afford. Added to this, we are now in the unhelpful situation where the larger firms are poaching trained staff from each other and smaller companies in an effort to solve their own skill shortages.
The situation is set to worsen as the workforce gets older and demand increases. According to Crossrail, the £29 billion project to build a new east-west line under the centre of London, the average age of an engineer in Britain is 56 and there is a shortage of new talent, with 50% of engineering graduates leaving university not choosing the rail profession.
This problem will be exacerbated in the next few years as the number of rail projects increases. For example, Crossrail at the peak of construction in 2013-15 will create about 14,000 jobs, involving over 40 trades and professions. Schemes such as these will put increasing demand and pressure on the limited workforce available.
We have reached this situation partly because of the reduction of engineering functions prior to the privatisation of British Rail in 1994. The engineering functions have never recovered from the wealth of experience that was lost at that time. Added to this, projects have become more complex, using new technologies and processes which require skills and experience which is often in short supply.
So what is the solution? There is no easy answer in the short term, but in the long term there are a number of issues which need to be addressed. First, the education sector needs to meet the industry’s demand in terms of producing the raw material.
There is a real failure to attract sufficient good-quality students to study railway engineering, partly due to the industry’s poor image and partly because school pupils are encouraged to go into further education rather than following vocational routes which traditionally supplied the young engineering talent.
We also need to look at the type of courses and training we offer students. It is important that course content, curriculum and qualifications reflect the way skill needs are changing. New and specific technical skills are required, and education and training needs to reflect this important change, and the importance employers attach to personal and generic skills. This applies both in the initial training of students and during the further education of those already working in the industry.
Obviously this has implications for publicly-funded education and training providers, but the rail industry needs to respond as well. We need to work with education providers and also improve our own in-company technical training.
Once we have the calibre of people we need, everyone in the rail industry needs to think about how to can attract these candidates into the sector, by offering employment packages with good salaries and satisfying career opportunities.
Mr Pete Waterman, owner of LNWR, Britain, a private train maintenance company, called for the establishment of an employer-led national railway skills academy. This idea certainly has merit because it could potentially address some of the problems we face, promoting the industry as a career option and bringing the young talent we need into the sector.

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