Davie Carns, Managing Director of National Infrastructure Solutions explains why a flexible and sustainable approach will help address the skills gap

The rail and infrastructure industry is set to face an impending skills crisis, with City & Guilds and the National Skills Academy for Rail estimating that up to 120,000 additional workers will be required over the next five to ten years. Yet without a sustainable talent pipeline, the industry will experience an imbalance of increasing demand and an absence of qualified workers. This is particularly true within the rail industry which has a multitude of major projects already underway or scheduled for the coming years.

Adding to this shortage is the fact that, with 28 per cent of workers in the industry aged over 50, around 15,000 workers could be due to retire by 2025. The impact of Brexit on the availability of oversees employees will also undoubtedly play a role in worsening the skills crisis. The solution to this lies in the creation of relevant and tailored training programmes, developed with industry employer needs in mind to ensure that future demand can be met effectively.

These programmes must also provide sustainable and supportive employment opportunities to continue to attract and retain talent. The training should be facilitated to prepare its learners for the realities of working in this sector and continually evolve to align with the ever[1]changing infrastructure landscape.

An ‘employer led’ approach

When tackling the impending skills shortage, it is imperative that training is designed to meet employers’ needs. Without accurately or sufficiently preparing new talent with the skills or knowledge that the sector requires, the industry will fall short of capable and qualified workers.

One region making waves and establishing a blueprint of how to equip individuals with the skills and experience which meets sector demand is the West Midlands. Enabled by funding and support from the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), both the City of Wolverhampton College (CoWC) and National Infrastructure Solutions (NIS) have developed several initiatives to support rail and infrastructure training, upskilling and employee retention in the region. This includes a focus on sector-based work academy programmes; designed to meet employers’ immediate and future recruitment needs, as well as recruiting a workforce with the right skills which will help employers grow and sustain their business. In the last year alone, the partnership has helped equip more than 200 people with skills and training within the rail industry, including to support ongoing HS2 projects.

At the core of these programmes is a focus on understanding local and national industry needs – working closely with employers and industry partners across all phases of training ensures we’re able to deliver exactly what they need. In the initial phase, we work with partners such as Jobcentre Plus, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and key stakeholders across the Armed Forces Community to engage those with little or no experience in the infrastructure sector. We then invite employers to meet the learners so they can understand how training will shape their development and address any knowledge gaps ensuring they are equipped with the necessary skills to be ‘work-ready’ as soon as they enter the workforce.

The learners then undergo a four-to-six[1]week course depending on their initial level of knowledge and experience, through which they are introduced to an array of skills and tools. This includes ensuring individuals are prepared for the practicalities of the industry by exposing them to on-the-job training and guided onsite learning in addition to standard Personal Track Safety (PTS) qualifications. This not only helps them understand the day-to-day job requirements, but also ensures site managers can assess specific skills and capabilities.

As part of the final phase of the programme, learners are supported with interview preparation before partaking in a guaranteed interview with at least one employer. This preparation is essential in making sure they can effectively demonstrate practical knowledge and apply what they have learnt during their training. Involving employers from the very beginning means that they can witness first-hand the progression and development of learners.

Engaging with employers and establishing these partnerships has built a huge amount of trust and confidence in both the quality of training and the capabilities of each graduate. It also leads to longer tenures in roles as individuals are fully prepared and have a strong understanding of the realities of the industry, therefore improving retention rates. As an example, one of our key employer partners, Stone Alliance Services Ltd, despite the pandemic and the associated challenges, hired 35 individuals following completion of training throughout 2020; 34 of these were still employed more than six months after their training. This kind of retention is much higher than the industry average and demonstrates how engagement with industry partners results in sustainable employment as well as a reliable and skilled workforce, with the most up to date and relevant experience.

 A ‘skills escalator’ within the sector

Another key challenge for training links to progression opportunities within the sector. With a multitude of entry level training programmes, there is a resulting stagnation as too many people are newly qualified with identical skill sets making progression and the ability to learn on the job difficult. Therefore, greater focus must be placed on a creation of upskilling opportunities and training for workers currently in the industry which would in turn allow more roles to become available at the bottom level as others progress, addressing the current ‘bottle-neck’ issue. These upskilling opportunities can also span beyond rail operations, for example, operations surrounding HS2 require a hugely varied workforce from CCTV operators to managers of onsite ecology projects.

This ‘skills escalator’ will then not only enhance existing capabilities and offer new pathways for employees, but also create gaps and a cycle for those prospective employees to gain the entry level positions made available. In conjunction with National Infrastructure Solutions, Amey Rail, an industry powerhouse, has recognised this problem. Spearheaded by Operations Director Wayne Brigden, Amey Rail have committed to building an Overhead Line Equipment (OLE) training facility at the City of Wolverhampton College to support the development of the current workforce ensuring in turn, Amey Rail can benefit from new, highly skilled operatives entering the industry.

A greater and more diverse talent pool

A vital component of our recruitment process is a focus on attracting talent from outside the sector. To meet the growing demand, it is important to engage with a wide range of individuals and identify skills and mindsets that would be highly transferable to infrastructure and rail.

While Jobcentre Plus and DWP are both effective avenues for engaging individuals, it’s also important to expand horizons and build relationships with wider charities and outreach groups. For example, working with an organisation supporting young people aged between 16-25 who have escaped gang violence, means we have been able to also offer them training opportunities. This has provided these young people the chance to gain relevant skills and experience in a new sector, helping to set them up for a steady and sustainable career.

Gaining funding from the WMCA has been instrumental in making all these training opportunities a success. It has helped us recruit and retain individuals across rail and infrastructure, enhance relationships with employers by directly addressing their needs, and contribute to a more diverse and skilled workforce. While we’ve already made great progress, we have no intention of slowing down. With future funding we hope to be able to expand our diversity even further. This includes implementing a ‘High Speed 100’ project which will be a fast-track employment programme enabling 100 women to learn the relevant skills required to work on HS2 related projects. Our aim for this project is that it will inspire a generation of women to seek employment in the sector and will galvanise principal contractors to take responsibility in closing the gender gap by making employment opportunities available to all.

The issue of the impending skills shortage within the infrastructure and rail sector is one that needs to be addressed through a collaborative and flexible approach to training that prioritises the requirements of local industry. Robust training programmes such as these in the West Midlands present a real and durable solution, not only increasing talent and improving access to training but inspiring a whole generation of work-ready individuals within infrastructure. With more effective entry points into the sector, and progression within it, we can accurately address industry needs and establish a workforce with the longevity and endurance to support the rapidly expanding rail and infrastructure industry.

A former youth international footballer, Davie enjoyed a successful military career spanning ten years, six operational tours and numerous accolades serving as a Royal Marines Commando. In 2014, Davie entered the rail industry initially working for Amey Colas. He has since enjoyed a varied and successful seven years in the industry before establishing his own business supporting the wider infrastructure sectors.