Home Diversity Powering rail productivity: The case for greater diversity

Powering rail productivity: The case for greater diversity

Stewart Thorpe outlines why rail needs to draw on new pools of talent


In a quiet side street office in the heart of Westminster, a team of data analysts gazes into a crystal ball to predict the makeup of rail’s future workforce. 

At its fingertips the team has collected anonymised data on 237,000 people by drawing on databases from the safety passport system Sentinel and industry employers that date back to 2016. Details such as job role, age, gender and location are entered into a specially designed programme that generates a map of Britain, highlighting where rail’s skills gaps and shortages are most acute. 

For example, it knows there are currently 288 male train drivers based in Wales over the age of 50 and that, in 10 years time, 613 will be needed in Wales in total.

This tool, referred to as the ‘Skills Intelligence Model’ (SIM), not only looks at today but, by looking at how much and where investment is going into the rail industry, it is able to forecast how many people the industry will need, what skills will be needed, where they’ll be needed and, crucially, when.


What is the difference between a skills gap and a skills shortage?

A skills shortage relates to the number in a particular job role (signallers, for example), whereas a skills gap describes limitations in their skillsets.


New students at the National College for High Speed Rail, pictured in 2017. Photo: NCHSR.

The bigger picture

The remarkable resurgence in the UK rail industry has seen passenger numbers double in the last 20 years, it’s a fact we’re all familiar with.

What hasn’t been reported so widely is the number of people employed by train companies alone has increased by almost 50 per cent in that time. With demand for rail services set to increase further, so will the need for more staff. 

Added to the equation are further trends that complicate the picture for rail’s future workforce in the short and long-term. For example, rail has an ageing workforce caused by a lack of investment in training and skills over the last 20 years. Around 22 per cent of the workforce is older than 50 and the National Skills Academy for Rail (NSAR), which developed SIM, predicts this could result in as many as 50,000 people retiring by 2033. 

Furthermore, as much as 20 per cent of the rail industry workforce consists of non-UK EU nationals. For some organisations, particularly those in London and the South East, that figure is as high as 50 per cent. Brexit, therefore, threatens the industry’s access to this pool of skilled labour from the EU. 

Finally, a shift in the types of skills that are in demand – from manual to digital caused by technological advances and digitisation – will change the make-up of jobs and put pressure on upskilling and recruiting people with higher skillsets.

These are all changes that influence the SIM forecasting tool. 

Neil Franklin, head of skills intelligence at NSAR, leads on this work to predict the future workforce for the rail industry. He said there are three areas in particular in which rail faces the most acute skills shortages: signallers, train drivers and maintenance technicians. Simply put, overall, rail will need around 50,000 extra people by 2033.

If it doesn’t succeed in tackling the skills shortages and gaps,  labour costs will be pushed up, increases in productivity prevented, project timelines delayed and the industry’s ability to deliver a railway to meet future growth requirements compromised. 

“By not investing in skills, what we’re actually doing is worsening our productivity perspective,” said Neil. “Because we have an ageing workforce, if people retire and that well of capability is not being replenished, we’re relying on fewer and fewer people to do the same job, which basically means we’re paying them more because we don’t have a choice. 

“What that means is we become less and less productive. So what we should be doing is replenishing the reservoir of talent, either with apprentices or with people from the armed forces or people from other sectors. At the moment, our reservoir is diminishing rather than increasing, which means we’re being less and less productive.”

It’s a big task, and it requires a change in approach. 

Fishing in new pools

The railway workforce has long been made up of predominately white, middle-aged men, but if it wants to tackle the skills challenges, it needs to widen its reach and attract the very best talent. 

This includes recruiting and retaining people of a black, Asian and minority ethnic background and women – who make up less than 15 per cent of the workforce and have previously been underrepresented. It is exactly why the August/September 2019 issue of RailStaff focuses on women, who are one of a number of key talent pools for the industry to fish from.

Mark Carne (centre), former CEO of Network Rail, alongside colleagues Janice Crawford and Becky Lumlock.

Advantages of gender diversity 

Not only does rail need women and their skills, research has shown that more gender-diverse workplaces perform better than imbalanced teams. 

Former chief executive Mark Carne wanted to find out if this held true for Network Rail and prompted a research project looking at its teams. It found teams with 20 per cent or more women – the “critical minimum threshold” – were more engaged, more collaborative, safer and more motivated. And in teams with up to 40 per cent women these scores were even higher. 

Mark said: “When a workforce is made up of similar people – when they all think the same and have the same background – it encourages conformity and stifles creativity. It doesn’t help us to challenge the way we’ve been doing business for decades. It doesn’t help us to drive up productivity and offer better value for money. It doesn’t help us to keep making our railway safer. It doesn’t help us get better every day.”

He added that “diverse, gender balanced teams” were “better in every way”. “The prize is huge” he concluded.

A special edition

The research above stresses exactly why diversity is important, not just from a cultural standpoint but from an economic one too.

This issue, which has been shaped by three railwaywomen who have helped to edit its content, focuses on women in the rail industry, highlighting issues that will hopefully inform, educate and inspire change when it comes to attracting and retaining the very best talent.

Researching this topic has been an eye-opener. Diversity has improved considerably since the mid-19th century, when women disguised themselves as men to secure lucrative work constructing railways. Nevertheless, it has so much further to go. 

The following pages highlight pioneering women, work organisations such as Network Rail, GTR and WSP are undertaking to recruit and retain more women into their workforces and what lessons could be learnt from other industries. 

I’ve learnt a lot over the past few weeks but, above all else, I’ve come to realise the historic assumption that the market will take care of the provision of skills is no longer safe. We must all act now. 

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