Bridging the skills gap

The skills shortage in the rail industry isn’t going away anytime soon. Rail experts Ian Hay, Richard Mansfield and Rob Tidbury outline five steps towards strategic, long-term solutions addressing the fundamental issues

It should be a boom time for the rail industry. Megaprojects like High Speed Two (HS2), Crossrail and Crossrail2 will be good for travellers and the wider economy, expanding capacity, stimulating regeneration and providing a steady pipeline of work for contractors and their supply chains for years to come. However, concerns are growing about the shortage of skilled labour.

The growing demand

These programmes are huge, and will demand a massive workforce of skilled people to deliver them. It’s estimated that the UK needs to double the number of annual university engineering graduates and of apprentices to meet demand for job openings by 2020. Factor in the demands of Network Rail’s CP5 and CP6 programmes, and those of the other operating companies, along with the large numbers of engineers approaching retirement, and there are the beginnings of a resourcing crisis.

Figures show that over 40 per cent of all professionally-registered engineers are aged 50-plus. This represents a significant loss of expertise and knowledge in the not too distant future.

A need to do more

The all-important band of experienced professionals who can run major projects and mentor up-and-coming staff is also sorely lacking. Ramping up graduate and apprentice programmes isn’t enough — it will produce an influx of new blood, but without steady hands to provide leadership, their development will falter and delivery will suffer.

No wonder, then, that competition for talent is keen. Tales abound of relatively inexperienced staff receiving a substantial salary boost for a sideways move to a competitor — some private sector consultants complain of staff being poached by their public-sector counterparts, a situation that would be unheard of in any other industry.

Training our future

One of the solutions is the UK-wide Rail Design Apprenticeship scheme, which started in 2015 and now has 56 apprentices across the industry, with AECOM taking 12 of these. Our accredited graduate programmes provide pathways into specialist rail signalling, traction and electrification disciplines, ensuring there’s a flow of new and talented young people coming into the industry.

We also work with colleges to recruit local apprentices close to our offices and develop bespoke training to Level four, equivalent to Higher National Certificate level. In addition, our schools outreach programme targets schoolchildren as young as 10, helping them develop analytical and lateral-thinking skills through fun learning activities such as building structures using everyday objects like marshmallows and straws.

Driving change

Meanwhile, the rail industry — indeed, the engineering industry as a whole — needs a more joined-up response involving government and education to drive the long-term development of the UK’s engineering talent.

Our five big ideas below are an attempt to address the problems and once again make the UK a global powerhouse of engineering excellence.

Five big ideas to revive UK engineering

1. Build a business plan for UK PLC

UK industry is tied to the five-year election cycle. Major infrastructure programmes are announced and procured in a rush to avoid being cancelled by the next government. Addressing skills and training is subject to prevailing political thinking.

This short-termism isn’t working. We need a long-term, cross-party plan that looks at our entire infrastructure — rail, roads, water, energy, aviation. It should asses the strategic priorities for asset maintenance and capital projects, and set out the training and education investment required to deliver this. This is the only way to face up to some of infrastructure challenges of the coming decades.

2. Build certainty in delivery

Currently too many central programmes are launched into procurement without a full specification of requirements. Too often works packages — or even whole projects — are delayed or drop out of delivery if the scope or budget changes. These cause problems for delivery organisations.

Consultants and contractors could work closer with potential clients to scope a programme of works (Network Rail’s CP6 is a good example), without compromising procurement law. Then, with greater certainty that work is coming down the pipeline, organisations can make informed decisions about bidding (itself costly and time consuming) and resourcing.

3. Build understanding in the centre

Becoming a professional rail engineer isn’t easy. It is, however, a genuinely rewarding role with long-term career prospects.

To build support for engineering there must be stronger links between the industry and government. An Engineering czar or expert advisory panel may be the way to bring impassioned and informed advocacy to the heart of government.

4. Build an early appetite for engineering

Like AECOM, many organisations visit primary and secondary schools to run engineering workshops with students. But too often, the initial burst of enthusiasm following the visit dissipates as the everyday reality of covering the curriculum reasserts itself.

Making these visits part of a national network of outreach, in which all engineering companies take part, would help build continuity. Even better, central government could tweak the current science, technology and mathematics (STEM) curriculum to include engineering-related problems and ideas.

5. Build pride in the job

UK engineers need to reclaim their name. The word ‘engineer’ has become debased. Everyone from boiler technicians to photocopier repair people brand themselves as such. These people do important jobs, but are they engineers?

There needs to be a clear demarcation between engineers —who combine academic and professional qualifications with a creative, problem solving mindset —and other technical roles. Also, why not make it easier for skilled people from other regulated industries — oil and gas, or highways, for example — to cross over into the rail sector.