Rail needs a credible long-term strategy to build skills and engineering expertise, erode disciplinary boundaries, and ultimately become, once again, a truly desirable place to work. Through the eyes of three of our graduates, we look to rail’s big challenges, and how we can address them.

 

Rail has a demographics problem. Gradually but consistently, its workforce is ageing. Just eight years ago, our industry employed twice as many under-25-year-olds as it does now – just 5% of the total. At the other end of the age spectrum, over 20% of the workforce will retire in the next six years. The result is a steadily worsening skills crisis, and a daunting hurdle for an industry which urgently demands investment, growth and digital adoption.

But rail also has a diversity problem.  Despite a strong consensus around the need for a workforce that genuinely looks like the people who use rail, the statistics indicate a worryingly static picture. As of 2022, only 14.6% of the workforce was female (a dip against the year before), whilst the proportion of other than white workers hasn’t budged from around 12.5% in the last five years (against 18.3% in the general population).

These two concerns appear separate. But what they have in common is that they both can – and must – be solved by an impetus of young, diverse and innovative minds. Through our Graduate Development programme, we guide our graduates to aspire, achieve and advance, building skills, broadening horizons and working towards a professional qualification. Through a series of s

ignature events, core training modules, mentoring and on-the-job experience, we equip our young professionals to overcome the thorny challenges of a difficult future – and find some unexpected buds along the way. The journey of three of our graduates shows how our industry is already changing.

 

Michelle Kansiime, Graduate Civils Engineer

What are you currently working on?

Through AtkinsRéalis, I keep being exposed to interesting projects. Right now, I’m designing transportation systems for NEOM in Saudi Arabia, and project managing contractual compensation events for the National Highways East Region Design Services Contract. I’m really interested in something that’s revolutionary, that actually builds a sustainable future and for which you have to literally think outside the box! But I’ve really loved the challenge of project management, and my manager has helped me fulfil my desire for more of it.

What stands out about your experience at AtkinsRéalis?

There are so many opportunities to follow my passions, and I love that I feel positively encouraged to do that. I recently volunteered to be a Governor in AtkinsRéalis’ industry-leading partnership with Governors for Schools (GfS). That’s been so amazingly impactful – we’re delivering an enhanced STEM curriculum into schools to inspire the next generation of engineers. I’m also a Wellbeing Champion for my local office in Leeds, organising mental health talks, and I’m involved in the Net Zero workforce, helping organise leadership training events to embed low-carbon thinking. As you can imagine, I’m quite busy!

How do you see change happening in our industry?

Along with everyone I work with, we know we actually need to go out and do more to make change happen. It’ll only happen if we’re proactive. So, I think it’s about small, intentional things. For instance, during Race Equality Week we had a five-day challenge to get people talking. “Okay, on this day, as a team, what are we going to do? What are we doing to bridge the gap?” And that’s how we kickstart and continue cultural change – by getting people talking about things they don’t normally talk about.

 

Haseeb Abbasi, Graduate Signalling Engineer

Can you tell us a bit more about your graduate scheme?

The structure of my scheme led in many different directions – it involved 3-6 month placements around all elements of the Signalling business over three years. You begin to understand how the disciplines operate , implement what you’ve learned and bring forward best practices into new teams. The result is I’ve seen the importance of connecting and integrating different viewpoints and technical skills, and I’ve felt really supported. Alongside your line manager, you have an allocated buddy – usually a second-year graduate – and a mentor from the senior leadership team. I felt like I was heard right from the beginning. So regardless of the team I end up in, I have been given the support, the resources and the ability to work on exciting projects.

What stands out about your experience at AtkinsRéalis?

The culture at AtkinsRéalis is so focused on people. As a young engineer, I wanted to be surrounded by people who would foster my development. But that focus on development – and providing the resources and opportunities for training – is unique. Unusually for such a large company, I feel part of a strong graduate community that is given the time and space to bond, share information and build relationships. One year we had an autumn school experience, where me and nine other graduates from all three years of the programme came together to volunteer on heritage rail – that was amazing. And last year, I managed a project volunteering initiative which involved around 50 members from our staff, as well as our client and sub-contractors, to deliver meaningful social value in our local communities. Since then, I’ve engaged with the business to ensure social value is a core part of our projects.  I’ve also been given the platform to showcase my ideas – joining the Signalling Pathfinders programme has allowed me to work on strategic business objectives alongside the Signalling senior leadership team.

How do you see change happening in our industry?

I’ve always had a strong interest in equality, diversity and inclusion, as fostering a positive environment is key to maximising staff potential. But I wasn’t expecting that as soon as I arrived, I would join discussions with our senior leadership on how to build a more inclusive workplace! The result is I feel able to make a difference, not just day to day, but also through all the initiatives within AtkinsRéalis. I find I can always try something different, develop new skills, and give back to the community. I think that’s key to bringing about and spreading change.

 

Natalie Halarnyk-Peet: Civil Design Engineer

What are you currently working on?

I’m coming to the end of a 2-year site secondment on East West Rail Phase 2 after working on the project for over 5 years. It’s been a thoroughly interesting project to work on due to the various aspects of design and construction i was involved with. The project objective is to re-open a section of railway between Bicester and Bletchley which was mothballed in the late 60’s.

My first role was involved with producing Highway Consents for the first year, before moving on to a Design Lead role in Ancillary Civils. During my secondment, I was the Site Design Engineer for Ancillary Civils, in which my role was to bridge the gap between the construction team and the design team. If any site issues occurred, I would help to resolve the issue collaboratively ensuring design standards were met, whilst remaining buildable.  It’s been an incredible opportunity to be learning in this fully integrated Alliance environment working with Laing O’Rourke, VolkerRail and Network Rail – I’ve gained so much experience of major projects.

What stands out about your experience at AtkinsRéalis?

The first thing that comes to my mind is the graduate community. There is such a large, welcoming community where everyone is supportive and friendly. One of my highlights is annual graduate ski trip. This is something I never thought I would do, but I was fortunate enough to attend 3 of these trips, boosting my confidence, expanding my network and walking away with friends for life! By my second year I was organising the next ski trip for over 100 graduates. It’s almost like a metaphor for AtkinsRéalis culture, that you’re encouraged to try new things without fear and that you’re surrounded by a big, well-structured and supportive community.

I have also been fortunate enough to take part in the Women in Rail Mentoring Scheme.  –I had a mentor, Barry Tan, from RSSB (Rail Safety and Standards Board), who supported me through this programme. We had weekly chats which hugely boosted my confidence, even in just general life decisions. Having that honest relationship that wasn’t about business, which slowly developed my skills – that was really helpful. And one day I’d like to pay that forward and become a mentor myself.

How do you see change happening in our industry?

I think our outreach with schools is vital. I’ve used my volunteer days to go into schools to give introductions to STEM and showcase the work I do as an engineer These are the events that really do make a difference. Practical events are my favourite, those tend to be the moments that ignite that little spark in children, particularly with girls. It’s still a challenge to get older girls interested because they already know what they want, and we still don’t have that many women in our industry. STEM wasn’t promoted to me when I was in secondary school, but I’d like to believe I can help change that, convince more young girls to set their sights on STEM careers.

 

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