Mind the skills gap
Recruitment of railway engineers needs to double over the next 20 years just to stand still. Gil Howarth explains how the National Skills Academy for Railway Engineering is tackling recruitment and training of technical staff
Britain’s railway industry faces an enormous challenge to recruit, train and deploy sufficient engineers to supplement and replace the current ageing workforce.
Diminishing specialist skills and underinvestment in new talent has created an overall skills gap, seriously threatening the industry’s ability to cope with substantial enhancements – including Thameslink and Crossrail, extensive electrification, development of HS2, major upgrades of London Underground, light rail schemes, provision of new trains and introduction of ERTMS across the network.
Meeting the rail industry’s skills challenges during the past 20 years has been difficult – largely because of numerous structural changes, including disaggregation and privatisation of British Rail and the London Underground Public Private Partnership, which has since been abandoned. All this resulted in ‘feast and famine’ cycles of investment, not conducive to investment in people.
We were, therefore, delighted two years ago when Lords Mandelson and Adonis announced the then government’s support for creating a National Skills Academy for Railway Engineering (NSARE) – but only two months later we entered a period of uncertainty after Labour was replaced by the Conservative/LibDem coalition. However, the new government soon decided that the Network of National Skills Academies was to continue.
We then submitted our Business Plan, and in November 2010 the secretary of state for business, innovation and skills, Vince Cable, announced the government would provide £2.7m over three years towards our development and operating costs. Lloyd’s Register Educational Trust also provided £300,000 sponsorship for three years.
As a not-for-profit business, NSARE started work just over a year ago. We launched our membership scheme in June 2011, and today we have more than 160 member organisations, growing at the rate of 20 organisations per month.
NSARE has been developed by the industry for the industry and is truly employer-led, with a pan-industry board of directors chaired by Terry Morgan, the chairman of Crossrail. It is the industry’s chosen organisation to develop and implement the skills strategy for railway engineering – supporting the industry’s vision that by 2015 the engineering workforce will have the skills necessary to support the maintenance, development and expansion of a first-class, cost effective 21st-century railway.
Our underlying objective is that every individual in railway engineering will have evidence of demonstrable competencies, achieved through accredited training provision. NSARE is working now to establish a National Competency Database so that all engineering employees will possess their own ‘skills passport’ (a record of training and achievement) that will be required and recognised throughout the industry.
NSARE doesn’t deliver training but works with employers to understand their skills needs, works with training providers to ensure they are delivering what the industry needs, and works with other stakeholders to make sure the industry has people with the right qualifications.
With more than a quarter of the workforce now aged over 50, the industry needs annual recruitment to double by 2020, just to stand still. However, recruitment of the highest calibre young people has been a problem because of the industry’s poor image, so NSARE is working proactively with employers on a schools programme, promoting the industry as a rewarding and sustainable career.
There is also concern that broad technical knowledge among older members of the workforce could be lost, unless a knowledge transfer process is introduced before they retire. NSARE has recently been awarded a contract by the Office of Rail Regulation to undertake a skills forecasting exercise; this will provide an analysis of the scale of challenges ahead.
We recently published our Skills Strategy for the Railway Engineering Sector with the strapline: Apprenticeship to Fellowship.
We are delighted with the initial responses – including from the minister of transport, Theresa Villiers: ‘Thank you for your… skills strategy for the railway sector. As you know, the department and wider government is strongly supportive of NSARE… I look forward to seeing NSARE going from strength to strength, consolidating its vital role in the industry.’