HomeOpinionMeeting skills and staffing challenges in the rail industry

Meeting skills and staffing challenges in the rail industry

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Finding the right staff and skills is one of the biggest challenges for the rail industry and for the delivery of infrastructure projects both in the UK and globally.

As well as influencing public policy on key areas like training, immigration and skills, it is important to look at innovative ways of attracting new people into the sector and developing leading-edge hiring practices. What are some of the short-term and longer-term ways forward for the industry?

Immigration and skills

Employers in the rail industry must be able to access the staff and skills they need to compete and grow. The government can help, but employers also need to step up and help make a difference.

As well as using data and research to make the case for a balanced post-Brexit immigration strategy, we need to provide compelling examples of how overseas workers contribute to the sector and how staffing shortages can jeopardise the delivery of new infrastructure projects. When it comes to influencing the political agenda, stories are as important as hard data and employers in the sector can play a key role by engaging directly with Ministers and local MPs as well as working with representative bodies.

In parallel, it is crucial to ensure that people and skills remain a key component of the Government’s industrial strategy. Employers need to drive this agenda on both a regional and national level to ensure that we create a genuine step-change in the skills base available to the rail industry. A proactive approach to working with local schools and colleges is an important way forward and is something that the REC’s recent Future of Jobs Commission honed in on as a means of building better bridges between education and the world of work.

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Driving inclusion

Many roles within the rail industry need to see a genuine improvement on diversity and inclusion. For example, women remain hugely under-represented in engineering roles and more can be done to reach out to other under-represented groups. Rectifying this will take some time and will often involve transforming organisational culture rather than making cosmetic changes.

What other factors can make a difference? Specialist recruiters within REC membership have underlined the importance of female role models – at all levels – as an important way of encouraging more women into the sector. On the disability agenda, organisations like HS2 are playing a leadership role and specific initiatives like RIDI (Recruitment Industry Disability Initiative) are helping to raise awareness.

Harnessing new technology

The introduction of new technologies is already having an impact. For example, drones are now being used on infrastructure projects to quickly assess delivery options and even make cost calculations. Will this mean an end to jobs such as quantity surveyors in the years ahead, or will it open up opportunities for a different type of roles? As in other sectors, the impact of automation and new technology on job roles and future skills needs will remain a key focus area within the rail industry.

Employers working in rail industry supply chains have flagged the benefits of new technologies in enabling people with disabilities to operate in roles that would previously have been inaccessible. Artificial intelligence and new software is also impacting on the actual recruitment process itself, but the feedback from employers and candidates in the sector is that the ‘human touch’ will remain crucial and that the work of recruitment professionals will become central to helping individuals and businesses navigate an ever-evolving employment landscape.

Reimagining hiring procedures

Organisations are fishing in the same pool – especially when it comes to digital skills – and the need to shake up current hiring procedures is increasingly recognised. The REC’s June report – Perfect match: making the right hire and the cost of getting it wrong – says four in 10 employers admit that the interviewing and assessment skills of their staff should be improved. UK businesses are currently failing to hire the right person for two out of five roles, and the hidden costs involved in bad recruitment include money wasted on training, lost productivity and increased staff turnover.

As well as driving innovation, employers in the rail industry need to get the basics right, including clear job descriptions, understanding how their brand is really perceived by candidates and providing line managers with recruitment training. Regular reviews and benchmarking of recruitment practices with peers will become increasingly important; initiatives such as the REC’s Good Recruitment Campaign will help to ensure that more employers future-poof their hiring strategies.

Recruitment will get harder; the only solution is for employers in the rail industry to get better at it. As the professional body for the recruitment sector, the REC is committed to using ongoing research and forward-looking initiatives like the Future of Jobs Commission and the Good Recruitment Campaign to make this happen.

This article was written by Tom Hadley director of policy & professional services, Recruitment & Employment Confederation (REC).

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