Attracting the brightest and the best

Source: RTM Aug/Sep 16

Rail planner and director at Transporting Cities, Liam Henderson, explains how the rail industry must adapt to unlock the potential of its future workforce.

There is a lot of talk in the railway industry about addressing the skills gap; however, most of the focus is on core professions like civil engineering and signalling. The future railway is going to be run as much by engineers as it is by software developers and yet I sense a worrying lack of action to attract developers into our industry. 

Recently I spoke on behalf of the Young Rail Professionals at the High Speed Rail Industry Leaders Conference – Attracting the Brightest and the Best – in Birmingham. With an engaged audience, this was a great opportunity to highlight what millennials and the iGeneration expect from a workplace, and how we should adapt to welcome younger innovators into the industry. As a millennial myself, I have some experience in this field. 

There is no doubt that most of the projects we will undertake in future will require some degree of technology development, and yet the railway industry relies on innovations led from elsewhere which are then adapted to suit our needs. We are at great risk of outsourcing the industry’s future to the Silicon Roundabout. Shouldn’t some of the billions of pounds of investment actually go to investing in innovations specifically developed to benefit passengers? 

Adapting the workplace to stimulate new ideas 

Here’s the challenge though: if we expect the younger generation to conform to existing, rigid working practices then we will have already inhibited their innovation; we need to consider how to adapt the workplace to stimulate new ideas. 

Three key themes were presented to the High Speed Rail Industry Leaders conference: 

  • The need to rebrand railway industry: We are doing some cool things, for example working out how to launch a train to Birmingham at 250mph. But look at railway careers websites – they don’t exactly inspire excitement, yet. The likes of Apple and Google are brands as much as they are employers: they actively engage and are followed in the online space where young people interact. If younger people don’t know these exciting opportunities in railway industry exist, how are we going to whet their appetite about their prospective future? 
  • Smartphones have shortened our attention spans to about eight seconds: Without stimulus, tenure in a job will be equally reduced. We need tasks that are short and snappy. Railway innovators need to feel like they are making an impact from day one. 
  • Let people innovate: It’s unlikely you’ll find anyone in Tech City working in a cubicle tapping into a corporate IT network. If young railway innovators work quicker on their own laptop, let’s find a safe way to allow this. If they work most productively in small chunks, we need to allow them to work at the hours they work best. Let’s be honest, how many of us can productively stare into a laptop screen for eight solid hours? 

It’s not a case of young people being lazy or reluctant to take responsibility. It’s just that the nature of the work has changed and we need to embrace this growing cohort of future innovators. 

An industry as large as the railways will take time to adapt; however, we do have a pool of lean, innovative SMEs that can lead the way. Let’s support them through the procurement hurdles and kick-start the innovation train.

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