BELGIUM’s major sporting events and music festivals are probably the last place you would expect to find an exhibit promoting the country’s infrastructure manager, Infrabel. But lining up alongside the food and merchandise stalls, staff from the company are now regularly promoting job and career opportunities on the railway.
Exposure at events which bring the local and wider community together usually occurs a few days before Infrabel hosts a local Job Day, a key recruitment initiative which began in January 2017.
Here prospective recruits tour railway facilities and learn about the challenges they would face in the jobs on offer in the hope that it will spark their interest to apply. Hiring can happen on the spot with medical professionals available to administer the required tests. And with the process of filling in paperwork designed to be as straightforward as possible, new hires can be clocking on in just a few weeks.
Such a proactive approach to finding new staff reflects the recruitment challenges the infrastructure manager is facing. Infrabel is looking to employ 1400 people between mid-2018 and 2020 to fill positions vacated by professionals and technicians hired in the late 1970s and early 1980s. These professionals succeeded the previous generation, which rebuilt the railway following the conclusion of the Second World War. However, the employment market is very different now compared with 40 years ago.
“In the 1970s there was high unemployment so finding people was not so much of a problem,” says Mr Nico Van Wijk, Infrabel’s HR director. “Today it is a very different matter. In the north of the country, unemployment is at its lowest for 30-40 years and it is very, very difficult to find qualified technicians and engineers.”
Infrabel’s position is not atypical. Around the world railways and suppliers are searching for the next-generation of talent that will drive their respective institutions forward. Competition for the best and the brightest is fierce, forcing companies to adopt innovative approaches to attracting talent.
Social media is now the key platform for marketing jobs and careers. German infrastructure engineering firm Spitzke is harnessing platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to promote opportunities to a targeted audience of potential new recruits. In particular, the company is highlighting the strong position of the railway in future transport systems and talks up the innovation taking place in the sector.
According to Mr Christian Krippahl, director of corporate human resources at Spitzke, the emphasis is on the role individuals can play in delivering an advanced transport system with the recruiter seeking to build an emotional attachment with prospective employees.
“At our events we try to emphasise that it is not just a single job that they are applying for,” Krippahl says. “If they have a passion for what they do, we want to show them that there is a pathway in the company to start as a blue-collar worker and rise up to one day become the CEO. It is quite important that we inspire our workforce.”
Infrabel similarly relies on social media to promote job opportunities in specific locations. This is helping to reinforce the Infrabel brand, which is not that well known in Belgium with many people still associating the railway with the previous integrated structure led by today’s train operator, Belgian National Railways (SNCB).
The infrastructure manager is also altering its recruitment processes so it is in line with the expectations of the market. “If you book a Ryanair flight, or when you shop online, it is all as quick as possible,” Van Wijk says. “If you want to apply to a company, and it takes you half an hour, a youngster has no motivation to work for that company.
“Until a couple of months ago if you wanted to apply through our website, you had to set up an account and you needed to fill in all kinds of data about yourself. It was a really lengthy process. Now if you have a LinkedIn profile, you can upload that. It’s all we need and it’s two clicks away rather than 29 clicks using the old system. We really try in every aspect of the recruitment process to make it a lot more efficient, a lot more intuitive, so we don’t give the wrong impression.”
Mr Paul Scott, services apprentice manager at Thales UK, has a similar perspective. He says that as much as millennials need to adjust to the demands of working on the railway, he recognises that employers have to adapt to young peoples’ way of working and thinking, which is significantly different from that of industry “dinosaurs.”
Thales is engaged with the British government’s national apprenticeship programme and Scott says recruitment fairs, in particular the Skills London event held each November, are a major source of new recruits to the programme. The company also engages with local schools and colleges through presentations in the classroom. Scott says these are important to demystify what working on the railway means to these students. However, he admits that more can be done to bridge the gap between industry and education.
“On the surface, they think that it’s just trains and it’s just a railway,” Scott says. “They don’t see the technology behind that and understand that the signals and the telecoms are a key part of the system. It’s about getting it out there that the trains need more to run than a bit of track and a driver.”
In the United States, universities are a major source of new recruits to high-level positions, both in engineering and business development roles. Class 1 freight railways are aggressively recruiting engineers and business graduates at campuses across the country, and according to Mr Nicholas Little, director of Railway Education at the Centre for Railway Research and Education at Michigan State University, these graduates are well placed to make a major impact.
“With the baby boomers retiring in vast numbers I think there are going to be a lot more opportunities for faster advancement in the rail industry than there has been in the past,” Little says. “Because it has been slimmed down quite a lot, they have now gotten rid of a lot of the dead-end jobs. It is a lot more dynamic environment and I think they will be able to attract a lot more people. And we still have the railway pension, which is probably the best pension scheme there is. The salaries are also quite good.”
Little says Michigan State’s Railway Management Certificate programme, now in its 15th year, fills a training gap vacated by the railways as they have sought greater efficiency. During the four-week non-credit programme participants are exposed to new areas of railway management through both classroom instruction and site visits. Successful completion of the certificate enables participants to secure promotions and progress with their careers.
Little says internship opportunities with the Class 1s are also available to the university’s undergraduate supply chain management students, which is recognised as one of the top programmes in North America. He reports that following their exposure to the railway’s working practices, many of these students move on to full-time jobs following graduation.
American Railway Engineering and Maintenance of Way Association (Arema) similarly supports the railway industry’s presence on North American campuses. The association’s Committee 24 - Education and Training, which is made up of industry volunteers, has facilitated the development of student chapters at 24 universities across the US since 2006. According to Ms Amanda Limburg, student chapter coordinator, and an industry consultant based in Denver, the chapters support students by funding participation at conferences and exposing students to the workings of the railway through trips and internship opportunities.
Limburg also reports on the importance of Arema’s Railway Engineering Education Symposium (Rees) programme. The annual event is a forum for university professors to engage with the industry and provides instruction on railway engineering content that can be used in the courses they offer on campus. The 2018 event, the sixth since it began in 2008, attracted 32 education and industry attendees over two days.
“We found that mechanical and engineering students are not exposed to railroad-related content in their courses because there are very few professors working in universities today with the required knowledge,” Limburg says. “The Rees programme hosts workshops for professors to attend so we can share current industry thinking with them which they can include in their teaching.”
In Europe, Spitzke has developed strong ties with various German universities. The company offers internship opportunities for students while Spitzke staff support higher education institutions by providing instruction, informing the curriculum and participating in examination juries.
Infrabel likewise works with Vrije University Brussels, where again its staff offer instruction and support to relevant railway engineering courses. Some of its managers also have a degree of contact with local schools. However, the number of suitably qualified graduates is still falling short of what the infrastructure manager and other industrial companies will require in the future.
“There is currently around a 7% turnover of staff at companies,” Van Wijk says. “This is a much larger proportion than the people leaving education and getting their degrees. Top engineers get hired six months before they leave university by companies that put significant wage packets on the table. We are a publicly-owned company, which makes it difficult to counter such initiatives.”
Despite this, Van Wijk is encouraged by the new talent that has entered the company. Overall, Infrabel’s innovative approach to recruitment helped the company to hire 350 people in 2017. However, with unemployment falling again in 2018, and other firms catching on to the Job Day concept, Van Wijk says this figure has dropped off in 2018.
The company’s response is to innovate its recruitment strategy once again. Infrabel is also working to develop the talent it already has. This is part of the thinking behind the Infrabel Academy, a new state-of-the-art training facility which is set to begin operating in 2020.
Van Wijk says the new facility will help Infrabel move away from a dispersed and silo-based approach to training, which will improve efficiency and professionalism. “We will incorporate modern ways of training like e-learning and flipped classrooms into the new building that we are constructing,” he says. “All railway technologies will be under one roof and we will have a hall with track and overhead lines enabling us to do simulations of technical issues that you might encounter in the field.”
Spitzke is also focusing on developing the skillsets of existing employees by offering professional development at its academy located south of Berlin. More than 80 training programmes are available to current staff while 40-50 16-19-year-olds enter the academy each year through Germany’s national apprenticeship programme. Spitzke offers 14 apprenticeships, which are strictly regulated by the German chamber of commerce, with each programme taking three years to complete. In addition, the facility is also supporting staff development in the wider industry by hosting training services for 1200 participants from third-party organisations, including German Rail (DB), each year.
“In this instance we see ourselves as a partner of DB, rather than a competitor,” Krippahl says. “Only together can we fill the gap. We might be competitors but we are working towards one system.”
One notable element of the Thales apprentice programme is the active effort by Scott and his team to recruit young people from less-privileged backgrounds. For example, the company works with the Prince’s Trust’s Get Into programme through which five to 10 young people are offered work experience, which for some has led to full-time employment. “Where their education level isn’t the same as the others, we offer them support with maths and English,” Scott says. “It is giving someone a chance who is not necessarily getting that chance.”
Scott adds that attracting women into the programme is something he likes to encourage because of the vast gender gap in more technical positions in the industry. Spitzke likewise is putting a great deal of energy into female recruitment. Krippahl says the company offers flexible working hours and support for childcare as well as offering a path for women to re-enter the workforce after having a family.
Infrabel is also aware of the issue and has managed to increase the proportion of female staff from around 6-7%, when the company was founded, to around 10% now, and approximately 20% of all new recruits are female.
“We want to be a mirror of the society we live in and recruiting women is something we strive for, but it is not easy,” Van Wijk says. “If you look at our finance department, HR, communications, procurement, those typical departments where you don’t need technical people, we are 50% female. But if you look at really technical departments, we are at less than 10%. For engineering, 10-15% of graduates are female. We really put the emphasis on hiring more women but the statistics are against us.”
The perception that working in rail engineering is a tough and dirty job is a difficult label to shift. The industry in general also has a relatively poor image among the general public. Little says that many young engineers which gravitate towards railway engineering tend to follow in their parents’ and grandparents’ footsteps. For others, it’s a harder sell.
But as Spitzke and Krippahl are keen to emphasise, with the sector entering an unprecedented era of innovation and reform, the sector does have a great story to tell. And the public can respond to this. A 2013 BBC documentary series following everyday people working on the railway network, which attracted large audiences and was well received, was credited for a spike in Network Rail apprentice applications the following year.
Taking an active approach and not being scared to try out new ideas is producing encouraging results for these industry players. It might also provide food for thought for other companies battling their own recruitment dilemmas.