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Living in the eye of a perfect storm

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The rail industry is living in the eye of a perfect storm that is signalling major problems ahead unless a solution is found, and with some urgency, according to talent acquisition specialist Sam Ford.

On the surface, it is a fantastic time for the industry, with huge projects including HS2, Crossrail and Crossrail 2 coming online, as well as major train builds and line upgrades all over the UK.

With that though comes an ever-growing need for specialist skills that still shows little sign of being met.

While shortages in the industry have been highlighted for some time – and long-term steps have been taken such as establishing the National Skills Academy for Rail (NSAR) and the newly opened National College for High Speed Rail to hopefully safeguard the future of the industry, it is the here and now that is pressing.

“There are students coming through the education process, but they won’t be ready and available for a number of years,” said Sam Ford, head of Ford & Stanley Interim, the rail recruitment brand specialising in contract employment.

“Older ones are retiring, former rail engineers have drifted away to other industries perceived as more innovative and exciting and, with social mobility decreasing sharply, people are more reluctant to relocate.

“All this leaves the industry with such a shortage of skilled workers that it could have a significant impact on the speed in which the industry can move forward, at a time when much needs doing and major projects are underway.”

Sam Ford.
Sam Ford.

Crossover jobs

The solution, according to Ford, has to lie around re-engaging engineers who have moved to automotive, aerospace, construction and other industries, and bring them back.

Part of the issue, he said, revolves around the perception of the rail industry: “Other industries have seemed to have driven ahead in terms of technology and the digital revolution, leaving rail behind.

“But while Britain has been run on a Victorian railway, that is changing. The growth is happening now, so the pressure now is enormous, and growing. The industry is looking to modernise but will struggle to do so at the pace it wants if there are not enough people to work in it.

“Rail has caught up and in some cases is leading the digital revolution. That is the message we need to get across to attract those who have left. There are plenty of crossover jobs around digital and electrical that are now required in rail that were not available or relevant only a few short years ago.”

Another issue, according to Ford, is a cultural shift away from a willingness to relocate. While travel is highly accessible and modern technology makes it easy to communicate effectively, people can increasingly do their jobs without having to move home. That though throws up problems when trying to attract people to move to a new plant, office or other workplace environment.

That view is supported by a demographic study recently completed by Queen’s University Belfast, which highlighted that at least a million fewer people in England and Wales moved between 2001 and 2011 compared with 1971 to 1981.

Ford & Stanley’s chairman, Peter Schofield, said his companies have been tracking changes in worker attitudes and behaviours since the late 1980s and that the end of the perceived “job for life” culture had a significant influence on the workforce’s attitudes towards employment, switching towards a project-by-project lifestyle.

He said: “In many cases, people had seen parents lose their life-time jobs and, over a relatively short period of time, we saw many engineers conclude that, as they had no real job security anyway, they might as well regard their skills as being portable between companies who need them most. They are now amongst the most valuable talent assets as they learned to instantly adapt to new environment challenges.”

Grind to a halt

According to Ford, while we wait for the long-term solution of skilled young engineers to become available, contracts and interim have a “very, very strong part to play” in rail.

“If this means raiding sectors like automotive, oil and gas, nuclear – anything that has complementary skills – and bringing those engineers across, and making it easy to do so, then companies must be willing to do that,” he said.

“Often the argument against utilising interims or contractors is the additional cost compared to that of a full-time, permanent employee.

“Our advice to employers is always consider ‘business need’: the costs and wider implications of not delivering your project due to the lack of appropriately skilled permanent resources set against the benefits of successfully delivering the project; then making a commercial decision on that basis.

“The government has a long-game strategy for the rail industry and should be applauded for that. The biting question is what we do in the meantime.

“If we stand back and do nothing about it, in this real time of boom, the industry risks coming to a grinding halt.”

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