What are the top staffing challenges that hirers in the Rail sector are facing in 2015?

26th May 2015

What are the top staffing challenges that hirers in the Rail sector are facing in 2015?

Research gathered at Railtex 2015. 

We asked the question of everyone we met at the recent Railtex exhibition at the NEC Birmingham and here are the findings:

1.“Attracting graduates into the industry”

The top staffing challenge in the rail sector is how we attract the best grads into the industry.

For us, this all comes down to making the STEM subjects appealing to school age children, by making them exciting and promoting the amazing career opportunities it can bring.

Jeremy Gibson, Managing Director of Syntax, commented, “Syntax are passionate about the promotion of the studying of STEM subjects. Our work with education bodies such as Derby Manufacturing University Technical College, and the Big Bang events, helps these subjects become attractive and generate a spark with school age children.

If they have this spark, and a naturally curious nature, then a STEM career is perfect for them!”

The Government maintains that Science and research are major contributors to the prosperity of the UK. For this prosperity to continue, the government argues that we need high levels of skills in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), and “citizens that value them”. The are many initiatives that aim to do this, such as STEMNET, Science and Engineering week, and the Big Bang events, to name but a few. But are they working? The numbers would certainly suggest so:

According to a recent article by The Guardian, the number of students studying STEM courses in the UK at record high. New figures have shown a 12% increase in those studying computer science – the highest total in a decade.

STEMNET (the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Network) aims to create opportunities to inspire young people in STEM. Ambassadors volunteer their time, visiting schools and inspiring students in the field of engineering, for instance by designing and making a bridge or even a railway out of cardboard, bringing into play practical activities to engage young people who can have fun while learning about engineering.

The biggest increase in applications has been in computer sciences, at 13%, but applications in engineering and technology also rose by 11% compared to the previous cycle.

STEM subjects also proved popular at postgraduate level. Full-time postgraduate research entrants in Stem subjects increased by 2% to about 6,600, a growth driven by students from EU countries other than the UK.

The challenge is to now sustain the upward trend.

2.Skills Shortages and the “ageing work force”

Currently, some 13,500 people work in specialist traction and rolling stock roles across the UK, but a future skills shortage of around 4,500 people over the next five years is forecast – caused by factors including an ageing workforce, the technological advancement of rolling stock, and investment and growth in the industry.

According to recent data, 1 in 4 employees in the UK Rail sector is over 50 years old (compared to 37 for the average IT worker)

There are various schemes and initiatives in place to help combat this, and make the Rail sector appealing for young people, and to help plug the talent gap. One is the National Skills Academy for Railway Engineering (NSARE) who focus on five key areas:

  • Promoting the rail industry in schools, colleges, and universities
  • Forecasting the skills challenges to deliver the railway of the future
  • Developing the railway engineering skills standards and qualifications
  • Accrediting the railway engineering training provision
  • Supporting competency management processes and systems

The Department for Transport, the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills and the National Skills Academy for Rail Engineering have provided £3.5 million for the National Training Academy for Rail (NTAR), with industry partner Siemens contributing the rest. The first students, including apprentices, will enrol at the new academy in autumn 2015.

Baroness Kramer said: “The academy for rail, the first of its kind in the UK, is a crucial part of the government’s long-term economic plan to secure a better future for Britain. Generations of young people will benefit from the apprenticeships and training provided here to find new jobs and get on in life.

“It is great to see this academy is well on its way to becoming a much-needed facility to support our railways which are being transformed, thanks to our plans to invest more than £38 billion over the next five years.”

There are many initiatives which will help to fill the huge skills gap and the ageing workforce that is evident in the Rail industry.

The focus on female talent leads to our next staffing challenge, as voted for by the attendees and exhibitors of Railtex:

  1. Women in Rail – how do we attract more of them?

And in particular, how do we encourage more girls to pursue engineering and computer science?

Yvonne Baker, director of the National Science Learning Centre says "It's an area where we continue to lag behind other countries. We need to focus on how we encourage more girls to understand that engineering and computer science are for girls as well as boys. Part of that is getting girls in physics. At GCSE they do better than boys. They need to be able to see themselves as the sort of person who does physics."

According to a recent article in The Guardian, women make up just 16% of the rail industry: that’s a lower proportion than women on FTSE 100 boards (currently 23.5%).

Why is this? And what can we do?

Adeline Gill, Founder of Women in Rail, has said “As a woman, if you were to think of a dynamic, creative and rapidly growing industry that could take you places (excuse the pun) - the rail industry probably isn't the first, second, or even third industry that would spring to mind. The UK makes more than a billion passenger railway journeys each year - but despite that it's an industry that few of us actually know much about.”

So does the industry need to raise its game? Make itself more appealing to women?

Adeline Gill seems to think so – she has created the Women in Rail Group to raise awareness of the many different opportunities available to women in Britain's cutting edge rail sector. “From CEO's to train drivers, Treasurers to HR - there are a huge number of roles available for people with the skills to match. Many people overlook the sector as a whole without thinking what goes on behind the scenes day in day out. The industry is crying out for talent in customer support, finance and payroll, engineering and design, PR and marketing.... the list of potential opportunities is almost as long as long as the new tracks we are laying.”

From a recruitment agencies perspective, the vast majority of candidates who apply for roles in the Rail sector are male. However, we have a very significant amount of contacts within our client base who are female. These are hiring managers, resource managers, HR professionals, CEOs, and directors. All of who have discovered how diverse, fast paced and genuinely exciting the rail industry can be. How do we make this a chosen sector to work in, not just one that is stumbled across?

Groups such as Women in Rail and WISE (who’s mission it is to get 1 million more women in the UK STEM workforce) help to change the age old perception of the Rail industry and get new blood into the industry.

As Yvonne Baker said, “Girls need to be able to see themselves as the sort of person who does physics”. This all links back to the need to push the STEM subjects at school level.  

Our next report will focus in more detail the perceptions of the rail industry, by the women who work in it.