Rail Industry Focus

20.01.17

A one-industry call for skills development

Source: RTM Dec/Jan 17

At the launch of the new Rail Sector Skills Delivery Plan in December, key industry figures got together to outline how the major strategy will seek to address rail’s workforce gaps through clear, tangible and deliverable pledges. Luana Salles reports.

If we can’t sell the rail industry’s existing career opportunities and promises of joint working as attractive and exciting to women, people from minority backgrounds, suppliers and those from other sectors, then we are doing something wrong, Paul Plummer told a privileged audience during the Rail Sector Skills Delivery Plan launch event last year. 

Speaking on 7 December at the Institution of Civil Engineers in London – in an intimate room covered with oil paintings of the historic engineers who helped make the UK’s railways what they are today – the CEO of the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) made the case for the skills plan, skippered by NSAR (National Skills Academy for Rail) but formulated by more than 60 companies. 

“Within the rail companies and certainly in everything you hear from ministers at the moment, there’s a passionate desire to put the customer right at the heart of everything we think about,” said Plummer. “And that’s an incredibly important message also in the context of skills, because that requires softer skills, different sorts of people, different mindsets, working in a different way. 

“Likewise, the emphasis around joint teams – be they between train operators, suppliers or the clients – show that collaborative working brings a different way of thinking in many cases. If we can’t sell that as exciting, we’re doing something wrong.” 

But even beyond that, the plan actually matters, the RDG boss emphasised. “Not just to the customer, the people who are using the railway, but it matters to the whole of our economy, the whole of our society; it makes a difference to many, many millions of people in this country,” he added. “And again, if we can’t sell that as exciting to people who want to come and work on the railway to be able to deliver on the opportunities we have, then I think we’re doing something wrong.” 

Tying all the strategies together 

The delivery plan, which seeks to address the existing skills challenge in the industry in a much clearer and more tangible way, was developed by the sector in response to the government’s Transport Infrastructure Skills Strategy. It also aligns perfectly with the Rail Supply Group’s (RSG’s) industrial strategy, Fast Track to the Future.

Gordon Wakeford, the RSG’s industry chair, attended the launch event to explain how the strategies complemented each other: while the government imposed targets for apprenticeships and female recruitment, the RSG outlined a pledge for a “coherent skills plan to attract the best talent and increase productivity”. Now, NSAR, fed by input from rail companies and over 100 individuals, broke this pledge down into specific deliverables. 

“The Rail Sector Skills Delivery Plan spans six strategic themes, each of which has a challenge for the sector,” explained Wakeford. “By bringing this plan to life, we will deliver technical advances, improve productivity, embrace diversity, and provide reliable rail services for the people of the UK. 

“Research estimates that unless the skills challenge is addressed, skills shortages in rail will cost businesses over £300m and the government approximately £380m a year by 2024. That means it could be as much as £1bn a year by 2034. And this, of course, means we either do less or invest in skills. Recognising this, the rail sector has risen to the challenge and come together via NSAR to lay out the rail sector skills plan. Coming together as an industry is key.” 

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Six themes and their industry champions 

The plan’s six themes span leadership, intelligence, training & assurance, standards & qualifications, recruitment & retention, and promotion & attraction. Within each theme is a subset of their relevant components, such as focusing on apprenticeships, career paths, optimised provision, the industry’s image, diversity and regional engagement. 

Each of these subdivisions also come with a designated ‘industry champion’, ensuring pledges are transparent, accessible and accountable. For example, Clare Hannah from DB Cargo will champion the development of a common modern curriculum that certifies sector-wide competence standards to support the transfer of skills and new technologies, whilst Sabrina Ihaddaden from Bombardier and Young Rail Professionals will take a lead on regional engagement to help position the railway as a great place to work. 

Although it is industry associations and companies that are actively stepping forward to lead on pledges individually and collectively, the government has also promised to be involved. Paul Maynard, who delivered a keynote at the plan’s launch event, guaranteed that he too has a responsibility, as rail minister, to make sure that a commitment to skills is built into the heart of everything the DfT does, be that within franchise agreements or contracts. 

“When we published our infrastructure skills strategy [in 2016], that wasn’t the end of a process, it was the start of a process – a call to action for the industry to say that you will have to step up to the plate as well as government,” Maynard argued. “It wasn’t going to be enough to set up a few colleges and think that’s somehow solved the problem.” 

The government even “created an entire year for you”, he added, referring to former transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin’s decision to mark the end of Crossrail in 2018 with “a year of the engineer, to excite a new generation of Brunels, Stephensons and Telfords”. 

“Local content, local skills, that has to be the path to the future. And if we can, who knows, it might be your faces immortalised in oil around these frames in 100 years’ time,” Maynard told the audience. 

Where we go from here 

Going forward, rail decision-makers will not only have to abide by firm targets – such as creating 30,000 apprenticeships by 2020, with at least 20% of these being women – but they will also have to step up to the wider, longer-term challenge of embedding skills in every layer of the industry. 

Maynard stressed that everyone in the sector was encouraged to get involved with the plan and he “looked forward to seeing some real progress in the coming months”. On NSAR’s side, this already includes a firm commitment to developing a modern curriculum this year, according to its director of strategy, Shamit Gaiger. The second priority for the academy will centre on attracting new entrants by visiting primary schools all the way through to universities to “sell the really fantastic railway we have”. 

Wakeford also promised “much momentum” on the RSG side, with its next area of focus being the promotion and attraction of employees, including from within the sector itself – because “upskilling our existing workforce is imperative”. 

“The Rail Sector Skills Delivery Plan has been developed by the industry, for the industry,” stated Wakeford. “NSAR, on behalf of the rail sector, will facilitate a collaborative industry effort to address this great challenge. If the industry does not act now, our ability to deliver a rail system that meets huge growth requirements will be compromised. 

“With a wonderful variety of career opportunities, rail remains a somewhat undiscovered journey. The current enthusiastic and passionate promotion of our industry will be supported and co-ordinated with a one-industry approach to increase impact and ensure we’re competing with the other sectors. 

“For an industry that is centred on timetabling, I hope that our plan will help resource rail to have the right people, in the right place, at the right time. Let’s be honest, it’s a really great problem to have – we have a fantastic opportunity not only for us, but for our country.”

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FOR MORE INFORMATION

To view the Rail Sector Skills Delivery Plan, visit:

W: www.nsar.co.uk/services/rail-sector-skills-delivery-plan

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email opinion@railtechnologymagazine.com

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