With more than 2,000 sponsored staff, Vital is one of Britain’s largest suppliers of rail contingent labour. Its clients rely on it to supply the highly skilled people required to build and service the railway and these staff rely on it to plan their futures.
In 2016, Vital established a new projects division which would harness the skills and experience of its contingent labour force to directly deliver a variety of infrastructure works, including planning, design, surveying, construction and compliance.
As well as being able to deploy sponsored staff on projects for clients, it would have its own pipeline of work to provide stability in what can, at times, be an uncertain market.
“When I came to the business I didn’t really understand what it was to be a contingent labour worker,” said Scott Mayle, who was appointed in 2016 to head up Vital’s Projects alongside career railwayman James Stevenson.
Sustainable contingent labour
Vital Projects’ first opportunity to prove its credentials came on the Motherwell North Signalling Renewal (MNSR) project. Siemens was mid-way through its preparatory schedule for the commissioning of new signalling workstations (1 and 2), when its existing p-way contractor was forced into closure.
Although it was up against a number of more established contractors, Vital submitted its tender for the remaining packages and was successful.
Shortly after that, the next phase of MNSR (workstation 3) was tendered and won, securing Vital’s place at the side of Siemens in Scotland.
Vital Projects has gone on to win packages of work for clients including Taziker, Costain and Network Rail, allowing the Vital Projects team to grow exponentially to meet the needs of its key clients. The business is now looking to acquire its principal contractor license and pursue new opportunities in the North West, South West and on the LNW route.
“The Vital Projects business has succeeded due in no small part to the well-established infrastructure and personnel Vital, as a labour supplier, had in place,” said Scott. “On the successful award of a contract, we build a project team in its essence, with a number of key direct staff, project managers, supervisors, engineers, supplemented by our Vital Rail labour pool of skilled track, civil and S&T staff.
“These supplementary staff join the project, and enjoy regular hours, building and delivering a programme of work, and being part of a team trusted to deliver. They will often be upskilled, either through training to suit a role, or more readily by working continually in a set environment with a consistent experienced team. They move out of the realm of contingent labour to critical labour, as they are at that point an essential part of the team, and are treated as such.”
Scott talks about the need for sustainable contingent labour. Both sustainable for businesses that need reliable skilled labour and the individuals who want consistent employment.
“We often forget what it is to be a contingent worker,” said Scott. “These hard-working individuals are often viewed as a pair of hands on site, rarely engaged in a plan, and even more rarely aware of the requirement for what they are doing in the first place.
“The spark we see in a new member of a project team as we talk them through a plan and ask for their opinion is incredible. Equally incredible is the number of good ideas and opportunities these contingent workers offer when they are finally given the chance.”
The labour supply and projects businesses naturally support one another, said Scott. He believes that the project delivery function is helping to enhance safety standards and skills development.
Scott said: “The benefit Vital Projects has in being supported directly by one of the largest suppliers of rail labour and professional service staff is unquestionable, but what we have found is that the benefit in return to the divisions of Vital which we engage and borrow from is equally measurable.
“On the completion of a project or contract, the team which we have built return to their contingent or professional division with a wealth of experience, an understanding of project delivery, from cradle to grave, and undoubtedly better behaviours and understanding of rail projects. I have no doubt this will be the foundation of many men and women changing their view on the rail industry from being a stop gap to a career.”
To aid the development of its sponsored staff, Vital has introduced a mentorship programme where experienced team members help guide newly trained staff. Scott believes the programme prevents scenarios where trainees are put into challenging, time-critical possessions only shortly after swapping their blue hard hat for a white one.
“Our mentors are typically longer-serving team members, usually at supervisor or engineer status, who are skilled at the task at hand, but also on how best to coach an individual on the job. Not just how a tool or machine is used safely, but why the work needs to take place at all, who the client is, what to look out for on a site, where to go for a break, make them feel comfortable and supported.
“The programme enables two key factors. Firstly it allows us at Vital to understand what works the individual has undertaken and competent to deliver – to the benefit of the client. The mentors record shifts and works delivered by each mentee along with a level of competence.
“Secondly, it is to the benefit of the mentee and Vital, as shifts are undertaken the mentor can see through the app how much on-site practice their mentee’s have at these types of works, allowing them to gauge how much assistance they will require and either sign off as competent when the time is right or raise note for requirement for further training; eventually giving us a more confident and capable team member who is generally more able to understand not only the how when it comes to tasks, but also the why.”
Scott began his railway career with Network Rail in 2001, working on the issue of gauge corner cracking, which came to prominence following the Hatfield rail crash the previous year.
“Certainly it’s the best move I could have made and I’m glad I made it,” said Scott, reflecting on the opportunity he was given in 2016. “It’s great to have that comfort and support but just that free rein to do what needs to be done.”