Tania Bowers of the Association of Professional Staffing Companies (APSCo) outlines the importance of a post-Brexit immigration system that is viable for independent professionals seeking multiple contracts

It’s no secret that the rail sector has historically suffered from a dearth of talent. From an ever-approaching retirement cliff to limited numbers of education leavers taking up a career in rail, the available pool of people in the field has slowly been evaporating. But that hasn’t halted the number of rail projects being planned in the UK.

Various infrastructure improvement plans remain on the cards across the country and, despite the widely discussed shortage of talent to deliver the project, the HS2 line is still being developed. Of course, there have been numerous initiatives launched to encourage more people to work in rail – with the head of skills, employment and education for HS2 kicking of a media campaign to encourage more women to ‘play their part’, for example.

But despite this, the gap in supply and demand is significant. Figures published by the Strategic Transport Apprenticeship Taskforce, for example, estimate that 50,000 more professionals are needed in rail to meet the existing demand. And this shortage of people looks set to be exacerbated by Brexit.

The impact of Brexit on rail

While headlines have certainly been dominated by Covid since March, Brexit concerns have still been bubbling away in the background. For the Association of Professional Staffing Companies (APSCo), one of the biggest concerns as we near January 2021, is the UK’s ability to attract and engage international skills. This is particularly pertinent to the rail sector which, according to a research paper from the Rail Delivery Group, is largely reliant on overseas talent. The report revealed that 20 per cent of the rail workforce consists of non-UK nationals, with this figure up to 40 per cent for some employers, and many of these are contract professionals rather than full-time staff.

The reason that this is of such concern is that come 1 January 2021, rail employers will face a real struggle to hire the flexible resources from across Europe that many have become reliant on. The details published so far on the points-based immigration system that is planned provide a disappointing lack of detail around the movement of and access to highly skilled independent professionals across Europe. When we look at this information in detail, there is little to support and encourage contract workers to make a move to the UK for work after the transition period.

Under the Skilled Worker route an individual has to have a job offer and be sponsored by a licensed sponsor to gain access to this – an option that isn’t viable for independent professionals seeking to work on multiple projects. The Tier 1 Global Talent visa is very limited in scope and, as a result is not suitable for independent professionals working in rail. While the document recently shared by the Government references a broader unsponsored route within the points-based system which will allow a smaller number of the most highly skilled workers to come to the UK without a job offer, the Home Office has made clear that this will not open from 1 January 2021.

For the rail sector to have access to the resources it needs after the transition period, we need an immigration system that recognises that the UK’s ability to attract world class brands to set up business here and to negotiate advantageous trade deals after the Brexit transition pivots on access to skills and a flexible workforce.

Without a visa route that is geared to attract highly skilled contractors into the UK and, with lucrative opportunities available to these individuals in other countries, few are likely to willingly tackle the UK’s immigration system post-transition.

For employers in the rail industry it is essential that you register as a visa sponsor now, if you have not already done so. Unfortunately, the Skilled Worker scheme requires fees for employers and visa holders which are amongst the highest in the world.  Nevertheless, without access to EEA talent through umbrella company, agency worker or personal service company (PSC) routes, visa sponsorship is the only option.

Training challenges

While there is certainly a focus on training new recruits for the rail industry – with the Government’s Kickstart Scheme, for example, providing the funding that could help employers train more 16-24-year olds​ – there are also opportunities being missed due to an out-dated approach to apprenticeships. At the time of writing, the Prime Minister had announced plans to be more flexible with apprenticeships, though the exact details are yet to be published. However, what became clear throughout lockdown is that the traditional structure of apprenticeships simply isn’t viable in today’s landscape. The lack of flexibility, for example, has meant that some apprenticeships have been delayed rather than continued virtually where possible. This will likely have a knock-on effect in the short term as planned apprenticeship end dates face an extension.

However, moving apprentice programmes online isn’t the only opportunity that was missed in rail. Since lockdown was first initiated in March, millions of people have found themselves on furlough or out of work and looking for new employment opportunities. However, businesses can’t use their levy pot to fund training for these individuals. As a result, rail has arguably missed out on a pivotable moment to attract more people into the field who perhaps wouldn’t have considered a career in the sector before.

There is, of course, good news on the skills front from the Prime Minister. The plans to encourage more of the UK’s adults to retrain in specialist technical fields certainly looks set to bolster skills in the long-term, though they don’t necessarily address the immediate resourcing challenges facing the sector.

Driving change for the benefit of rail in 2021 and beyond

The UK’s rail sector has a wealth of potential at the moment. But it also faces a real demand from new projects that aren’t necessarily feasible to deliver given the shortage of available workers. Yes, the projects planned have the potential to bolster our economy, but there needs to be the people infrastructure in place to deliver this. That rests on the UK’s access to international talent and technical training that is fit for purpose. As demand builds in the sector, it is the time for employers to make their voices heard on rail’s skills gap.

Tania Bowers is Legal Counsel and Head of Public Policy at the Association of Professional Staffing Companies (APSCo)