NSAR: Tackling the digital skills shortage

Source: RTM April/May 2019

The National Skills Academy for Rail (NSAR) chief executive Neil Robertson returns to write for RTM, this time, to assess the digital skills shortage facing the rail sector.

How often do you look in the mirror and ask yourself the question: “What should my company be doing next on digital?” Every day I’m sure… Well, the good news is there is now an answer. Actually three answers: a) worry, b) then make a decision to grow your own, c) join a growing group of companies planning to support apprentices in digital skills as well as upskilling and re-skilling those already in the industry.

Why worry? NSAR has been working with Network Rail to understand the future digital skills needed. We now have good data on who will need to be trained, in what kind of digital skill, and whether it will be a new employee or upskilling an existing member of staff. You won’t be shocked to hear that we don’t have the skills we need now, let alone in the future. This is already having consequences. Industry data that would be highly-useful is not getting analysed. Even top brands in rail find it hard to recruit data analysts, system engineers and software managers. Every sector is after these skill sets.

A report by the World Economic Forum found that 85% of companies would need data analysts by 2022 (if they don’t already). So why not wait till then and go to the market? You’ll need deep pockets… Data scientists and analysts already command six-figure salaries. Gartner found that there were 10 vacancies for every candidate. Also, routes into rail research found that rail is less attractive to potential candidates. We generally don’t have dogs, table football and nice coffee in our surroundings. A recent study found only three out of 10 young people would consider a career in rail – and it won’t be so easy to recruit from Europe.

But failure to act will cost us in wage inflation (9%), reduced productivity (6%), and failure to implement new technologies or improve services (disappointed customers). And that means lower funding levels for the rail sector in the future.

You should now be worried, or at least mildly concerned. Good. But don’t be. The industry is starting to get its act together and we need you to get involved. Network Rail and NSAR are researching how best to deliver the digital training the industry needs. NSAR college and training provider partners are considering how to support. We have written digital into the new apprenticeship standards. The recently published Sector Deal focuses on digital and commits us to start training digital skills now.

We need to disrupt ourselves before someone else does, is the general message.

So, as an old chairman used to ask, “what do I do on Monday morning?” Actually, this same chairman used to give me exhortational speeches from time to time. One famously was “you need to be first, if you are second, and a husky dog, the view is always the same.” I didn’t find it particularly compelling, but the challenge about Monday morning is a good one.

Quite simply, we would like you to consider taking on a level 4 or level 6 data analyst apprentice. And, once you have reached the right answer, let us know! We will arrange training, learning support, mentoring, and so on. Don’t worry if you don’t know what a data analyst is – we know people who know. NSAR took on a level 6 graduate data analyst apprentice and we are already seeing the benefits. If you already have one, then have another, or a software manager.

This will become a national programme, including all parts of industry, futureproofing our workforce, and speeding the uptake of new technology and data benefits. It will fulfil part of the sector deal, and link to wider DfT and government initiatives such as STAT and the Industrial Strategy. Why not be in the first wave? The Rail Forum Midlands are looking at this question too. Please email me on the address below to register interest.

But, you might be thinking, if I train someone won’t somebody else poach them? There is always that risk, but it is mitigated in three ways: 1) if we all do it, 2) the evidence is apprentices are ‘sticky’ (they stay longer) and 3) they are productive quite quickly so pay the investment back well within three years. We will be holding events around the country to explain more, with a view to starting a large cohort in September. Husky dogs apart, now is a good time to prepare for the inevitable.


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