Skills gaps in the rail industry

RTM speaks to Simon Tarr, chief operating officer at sector skills council People 1st, about employment and skills trends in the rail industry.

Analysis of official labour force statistics suggests that rail has a workforce of around 133,000, plus another 20,400 in light rail. But as might be expected, the sector is much older and more male than the UK workforce as a whole, and employers report troubling gaps in skills.

The workforce according to recent figures was split across 2,194 rail businesses, and 310 in light rail.

The research by People 1st, the sector skills council that has covered passenger transport since its July 2011 merger with GoSkills, shows that 42% of rail employers say more than half of their staff could use extra training, especially on customer service and working across different teams. Across passenger transport as a whole, the organisation has said there is an “impending crisis” when it comes to skills shortages.

The report, ‘State of the Nation Report 2012 – Passenger Transport’, paints a picture of rising pay on the railways, especially for people classed as ‘rail travel assistants’ – a 23% rise over five years between 2007 and 2011 to £28,993 gross average earnings – compared to falls in pay during that time for others in passenger transport, such as air travel assistants, driving instructors and cab drivers. Those in ‘rail operations’ experienced a 13% rise, with average gross earnings at £34,159 in 2011, while there was a much smaller 4% rise for those in ‘rail maintenance and construction’ to £31,168.

People 1st’s chief operating officer, Simon Tarr, told RTM that across passenger transport, but in rail especially, there’s been a gradual recognition of the need for better customer service skills. He said: “One key thing is that passenger transport is used for leisure, and that highlights the important relationship between passenger transport and tourism, with many passengers either domestic or international visitors. It’s all about the overall experience.

“The prime focus for passenger transport in the past has been on transporting passengers in a safe and efficient manner. We’re now realising that consumers are increasingly expecting an ‘experience’ – with high levels of customer service and facilities that will make their journey enjoyable and, for some, productive.

“If you’re being delayed, but you’re then handled in a positive and friendly manner, that can ultimately make the whole experience better.

The other thing is the link with hospitality and retail outlets: if you go on a train journey or even a plane journey, hospitality and selling you products is a key part of that experience.”

The report’s quantitative studies were backed up with qualitative data and quotes from senior people, such as Southern and Gatwick Express’ HR director Matt Watson who said: “We believe that more people will choose to travel on our trains if we provide better all-round customer service. The first thing you’ve got to absolutely do is get the train service to run reliably. However, if you can delight people on the way, even when reliability lets them down, people will be inclined to say, ‘Well, why would I get in a car to go to wherever? I will get the train.’”

New opportunities

For obvious reasons, recruitment has got easier with the economic downturn, with more people chasing each job. But about 10% of rail employers say they still have hard-to-fill vacancies, primarily because not enough applicants with the right level of skills and suitable qualifications apply.

Rail is also skewed towards older workers, meaning there are fewer openings for graduates and apprentices and younger people in general.

But Tarr said there are opportunities there. He told us: “In a situation when you’ve got a million people unemployed who are under 25, in many cases some very bright individuals, we have an opportunity to get those individuals into a sector that in the past they wouldn’t have even looked at coming into.”

He said People 1st is developing a website explaining the career pathways and offering guidance on a passenger transport career, and wants to clearly communicate to potential applicants that there are plenty of qualifications to be gained while working.

The report suggests a stark difference between heavy rail and light rail when it comes to apprenticeships. While there are far fewer UK businesses in the light rail sector, nearly a quarter of them, 23%, employ apprentices. The equivalent figure for heavy rail is just 3%. This may be to do with the fact that the smaller number of businesses in light rail tend to be larger employers, who are more likely to be able to offer apprenticeships, rather than anything inherent to it as a transport mode.

Tarr said: “There’s probably no silver bullet in terms of apprenticeships, but light rail is the newer industry and has had a focus in that area. Heavy rail is not seen as a sexy industry to work for, and in the past has focused on older workers: that’s something we’re looking at, a focus on younger workers. They may have concerns that due to age limits, they can’t take younger staff on, but it’s about trying to find a way to take someone early, at a young age, on an apprenticeship, take them down the customer-focused path, and then train them as a driver when they’re slightly older.”

Training and skills

Many different people have a role in training and upskilling the rail workforce: employers, training companies, universities, the Government, sector skills councils themselves, and so on.

Asked where responsibility should lie for tackling the problems with skills identified in the report, Tarr said: “It’s the million-dollar question! And it can be quite a political question.

“People 1st has been successful in obtaining a significant amount of funding that is being used to stimulate employers to make changes and then take responsibility themselves for this. Ultimately, the employers have to take responsibility for training, but it’s our job to say, ‘If you train your staff, that will help your bottom line’. That’s the way we’re trying to do it. “In the past, c o m p a n i e s have felt they’ve had to do it for regulatory reasons: but we’re saying if you do customer-focused training that improves the welfare of your staff, it improves your bottom line as well because it improves the service for passengers.”

Where are the women?

The number of women in rail construction and maintenance is too close to zero for the official statistics to capture, and train driving too is overwhelmingly male: around 96%. Only around 23% of managers in the rail industry are women.

One unnamed head of training and development at a rail company said: “If you look at our traditional male-oriented functions, engineering is heavily male-biased as it is across all industries. Drivers are predominantly male, but there are still a large [number] of female drivers. I think traditionally it is a conservative industry and a mix of different people, different genders, or race or background benefits it by removing some of the old fashioned mind-sets of people.”

Employers quoted in the report insist there are no actual barriers to getting more women in the industry – the problem is that too few apply in the first place. They may be expected to say this, of course, as it shifts the problematic gender balance from being their problem to being a problem for women themselves to deal with.

Tarr called the current situation a “missed opportunity”, saying that men and women bring different skills and attitudes to their work and a balanced workforce will benefit an organisation overall. He said: “It’s about career paths, and saying ‘this is a great industry for women’ – whereas in the past, it didn’t have that focus, it’s been seen as a male-orientated industry. But I think, to me, that’s a missed opportunity: there are women who would find it a very exciting career and add value for the company and passenger.”

A successful scheme in the bus industry, Step on the Bus, helping to get unemployed women into bus driving, is being rolled out into the rail industry as Step on the Train, he said.

Interests aligned

Tarr also gave firm backing to NSARE, saying: “Over the last four months, we’ve been building a relationship with Gil Howarth and his team. In some areas, they’ll work with us, and in some areas they’ll work with Semta (the sector skills council for science, engineering and manufacturing technologies). We see our interests as very much aligned.”

Speaking about People 1st’s own role in tackling the skills gaps, he said: “Ultimately, our role begins with research.

“When we merged with GoSkills, we felt it was critical to do this extended piece of research, so that everything we do is underpinned by research.”

He said key priorities over the next few years include working with employers to look at innovative ways of delivering apprenticeships, promoting the sector as a great place to work and gain qualifications, helping roll out training systems, helping get unemployed people into the industry, and developing e-learning training programmes for SMEs.

He said: “The big employers, in many ways, can look after themselves: it’s the smaller and medium-sized employers that don’t know where to go.”

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