Why we all must mind the gap

Source: RTM Aug/Sept 2018

Clair Mowbray, chief executive of the National College for High Speed Rail (NCHSR), explains how we can all ensure the UK’s next generation of talented engineers are not only equipped with the skills necessary for major infrastructure projects, but are also diverse, inclusive and representative of 21st-century Britain.

First of all, the good news. According to the government’s ‘Transport Skills Strategy – two years on’ report, published in July, there has been an incredible 35% increase in those who identify as BAME which have begun working for Britain’s Strategic Transport Apprenticeship Taskforce.

In other words, the number of BAME apprentices starting out in the British transport sector has risen from 14% to 19% year-on-year. For a group that is greatly underrepresented in rail and engineering, this is an impressive achievement, with the percentage of apprenticeship starts now broadly in line with the number of UK residents who identify as BAME. This is a level that both the industry and the government should be striving to maintain as our national transport infrastructure projects look to progress from today’s 2,784 apprenticeships in road and rail to a longer-term target of 30,000. With a concerted effort, this is more than achievable, and will be hugely important in terms of improving diversity across the industry’s future workforce. 

Now the not-so-good news. The proportion of women who started out on some of those apprenticeships in road and rail last year remained static, at 20%. Of course, this is definitely more welcome news than a potential decrease, but we should take this inertia as a cue to ask, once again, what else needs to be done to boost take-up amongst women. It is important to remember too that this data only represents apprenticeships, just one aspect of the nation’s transport workforce. Apprenticeships are a good indicator of our future workforce and must not be understated, but the bigger picture tells us the diversity gap is still an exceptional challenge. For instance, women still only make up only 22% of the nation’s transport workforce (only 16% in rail), while in UK engineering around 11% of the workforce are women and only 8% are BAME.

Why is there still an issue with these underrepresented groups in the rail and engineering sector in the 21st century? In an era that appears to be becoming more and more divided – whether it is politics, questionable infrastructure plans, debates about podium girls in sport, scandals at high-profile dinners, or comments from certain British politicians about religious attire – it would be understandable to lose perspective on the reality of our industry’s diversity challenge and see only doom and gloom. Yes, there is a problem, but it is – on the whole – improving. The 11% of female engineers in the UK, for example, does in fact represent a year-on-year increase of 2%. A small change in a positive direction.

The key to ensuring that underrepresented groups can continue to become even more prominent in transport and engineering roles over the next few years is education. Only 27.1% of girls’ A-level entries in 2017 were in STEM subjects, for example, compared to 45.6% of boys’ entries. Students from BAME backgrounds are well represented in higher education (where they comprise 25% of engineering students), but there is still a disparity in attainment levels, with 80% of white students obtaining first or upper second-class degrees in engineering and technology, compared to just 68.5% of BAME qualifiers. This, clearly, needs to change.

With an ageing workforce in rail and engineering disciplines, and low numbers of women and those from BAME backgrounds in the sector, we must continue improving the industry’s (im)balance over the coming years. Diversity of people provides diversity of thought, and we should be looking to attract as diverse a group of people as possible into the sector, while seeking to redefine common – and often negative – perceptions of careers in engineering and rail.

Much of Britain’s existing railway infrastructure has its origins in the 19th century, a period that saw unprecedented growth in mass transport, industry and engineering innovation. The railway diversified choices in trade and brought new materials, foods, beverages, clothing, job prospects, destination choices, and much more to the masses.

There is no reason why we should not have a similar ambition for the network in the 21st century, but enhanced with a much broader workforce and the mastery of innovative modern technologies. Rail and engineering today is truly universal, and the success of the sector thrives on national and international teamwork and the coming together of diverse minds.

At the moment, demand far outstrips supply in terms of rail industry apprenticeships, with fierce competition (particularly for higher-valued technical positions) for those looking to join an industry that is projected to offer 25,000 new jobs through HS2 alone, and thousands more jobs on national upgrade projects and potential future developments such as Northern Powerhouse Rail. 

As colleges like ours work with the industry and the government to help people starting out, whether that is through technical courses or apprenticeships, we must not lose sight of the fact that our future success will depend on the diversity and adaptability of the workforce. In total, 35% of applicants to the NCHSR last year were women. That is a fantastic start and demonstrates that institutions like ours can really help our employer partners to achieve a better balance to their future workforce, which will bring them all the rewards that diversity can provide.


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