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Gender, skills and shortages – How much progress is being made?

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For a day in March, International Women’s Day and National Apprenticeship week coincided, giving much-needed prominence to two recurring areas of debate for the rail industry.

Both events have been whole-heartedly embraced by rail companies but what practical steps are being taken to match this enthusiasm?

Network Rail used International Women’s Day to highlight the specific targets it has set to address the gender imbalance in its organisation. Women currently make 16 per cent of Network Rail’s 37,000 employees – that’s around 6,000 women. By 2020, Network Rail hopes to increase this to 20 per cent: what it is calling its ’20 by 20’ plan.

International Women’s Day has been recognised annually for more than 100 years. Demonstrations held in Petrograd in 1917 were even credited with playing a key role in starting the Russian Revolution. In the 21st century, the event is more about awareness than defiance. The day has International Women’s Day has been recognised annually for more than 100 years. Demonstrations held in Petrograd in 1917 were even credited with playing a key role in starting the Russian Revolution. In the 21st century, the event is more about awareness than defiance. The day has become PR fodder for companies that, understandably, want to shout about the positive contribution made by women to their businesses. As an outlet for good news stories about those already convinced to join the industry, it succeeds.

But the day also highlights some of the worrying statistics around gender. In November last year, Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) estimated that only 33 per cent of girls who undertake maths and science GCSEs continue STEM learning into further education. It described the ’50,000 girls turning away from STEM education every year’ as an obvious place to start to address the overall shortfall.


One of the biggest challenges for the industry is demonstrating to young people the variety of job roles that are available, said Porterbrook’s Fiona Malcolm, speaking at iRail 2017 – an event which gives year nine students from schools in the East Midlands the opportunity to learn about the rail industry. Says Fiona, a fleet engineer and project manager, ‘I think it’s really important to explain how big the rail industry is and how many jobs are going on behind the scenes.

It’s not just the track and the trains or the manufacturers. I think it’s important to promote the industry and promote STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) subjects because there’s going to be a massive skills shortage and so we need the engineers of tomorrow to decide that they’re going to be engineers today.’


Now in its eighth year, iRail 2017 was held at Derby County’s Pride Park Stadium. This year the event, which is part of the national Big Bang careers programme, included a practical engineering challenge. Teams from 12 different schools were given six sheets of card, a ruler, sticky tape and scissors and were asked to build a bridge. The structure needed to be strong enough to support a train running over it, high enough to provide the clearance for a train to run beneath it and wide enough to allow different sized loads to pass below it along a curved section of track.

The challenge was both a test of design ingenuity and project management skills. Teams were allowed additional materials, but at a price. Extra lollipop sticks cost £50,000 and time on the test track would set them back £100,000 a minute. The students then had about an hour to plan and build their bridges. Loughborough High School – a selective, independent girls’ school – took home the winners’ trophy. Lady Manners School in Bakewell came a close second.

Before the challenge began, the students were given tours of Bombardier’s Litchurch Lane factory and East Midlands Trains’ Etches Park depot, where they got to see one of Network Rail’s mobile maintenance trains (MMTs). There was also an opportunity during the challenge to talk with companies like Porterbrook, SNC-Lavalin, and Atkins about careers in rail.

The event wasn’t just aimed at students. There was also a careers session for teachers to enthuse them about the rail industry and ensure they are able to have informed discussions with their students about what the industry has to offer.

The Derby Railway Engineering Society (DRES), which supports the event, helped adjudicate. Judge – and Rail Engineer writer – Peter Stanton said iRail was partly about raising the profile of rail engineering.

‘This was the eighth event of the series we have run and it continues to work to bring the status of the rail industry in front of year nine pupils,’ said Peter. ‘There is a story that the iRail event kicked off after one of our members took his grandson to meet the careers teacher at school. When he said he wanted to study engineering, he was asked ‘automotive or aeronautical’… And there the question stopped. This was Derby.

‘The pupils’ work was of amazing quality and the multiple solutions to the rail-related challenge we gave them were truly impressive. We are so grateful for the support received and from the feedback we are sure that we can continue to bring the real positive opportunities in the rail industry to young people’s attention.’


National Apprenticeship Week served as a chance to highlight another pathway young girls and boys could pursue. Between them, Network Rail and Transport for London will take on more than 300 apprentices this year – a contribution to the tens of thousands needed in the coming years.

Two female apprentices from Atkins, Charis Nelson and Anastasia Lake, spoke to students during iRail about their roles as OLE design engineers. Neither felt they had received the proper information about apprenticeship opportunities while they were at school, something they hope to play some part in remedying.

Fiona, who won the Young Rail Professional of the Year award in 2016, explained what she felt the students took from the event.

‘I think they realise there’s a lot of projects going on; a lot of different ways to be involved and a lot of different ways to get into it, so you don’t just have to get a degree; you can come in as an apprentice to some of the companies, you can go straight from school, there’s the UTC, there’s lots of ways to get involved and lots of different types of jobs within it. It’s not just fixing trains or building bridges. There’s a lot more to it than that.’

International Women’s Day and National Apprenticeship week might have coincided for one day in 2017 but thanks to the efforts of railway staff and an increasing array of teachers, careers officers and rail recruitment specialists, it looks like becoming a year-round exercise in attracting young men and women, school and university students to the rail industry.

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