Light rail, much like many other sectors across the world, is being drastically shaped by technological advancements…

While governments cut down on greenhouse gas emissions and instil low-carbon goals, businesses and consumers are demanding that transport services are environmentally friendly and sustainable to operate. This, of course, requires the sector to attract leading tech professionals who have the ability to create innovative new systems. In addition to clean energy commitments, consumers now expect services to operate at the highest of levels and with efficiency – again requiring the best tech talent to help meet demand. This decade will undoubtedly see the industry be transformed by the increased use of AI, robotics and machine learning.

Increased popularity of light rail

Light Rail Minister, Jesse Norman, has stated that new light rail and other rapid transit solutions could be integral to future transport networks across England’s towns and cities. Revolutionary track technology looks set to make light rail an even more attractive option for cities looking to provide clean, reliable transport solutions. In England, overall light rail and tram use increased by 1.9 per cent in 2019 compared to the year before, clocking a record number of passenger journeys and vehicle miles since comparable records began in 1983. Outside London, these figures increased by 2.8 per cent to 121.9 million and in London by 1.2 per cent to 150.5 million in the year ending March 2019.

What are the advancements in technology?

There has been a wave of technological advancements in UK light rail and tram systems. For example, recently it was announced that a project to develop a very light rail system in one of the UK’s major cities is moving forward with the development of an innovative composite which is made of a braided and woven frame.

Driven by the rail sector’s challenges to achieve what the industry and academia known as the 4Cs – reduce cost and carbon emissions and improve capacity and customer satisfaction – project BRAINSTORM aims to develop and demonstrate the applicability of braided composite structures to a novel, lightweight, modular railcar solution. The £14.7 million three-year project brings together academia, industry and the local authority with the goal of developing an affordable, environmentally friendly, autonomous transportation solution.

Headed by Warwick University’s ‘Warwick Manufacturing Group’ (WMG), the turnkey project will develop a lightweight, battery-powered vehicle running on specially designed rails throughout the city. WMG is working with industry specialists TDI and Far UK, along with Composite Braiding on the vehicle design.

Another project driven by technological advancements is the Midlands Metro extension, which added an additional five tram stops. The development has benefitted from a £60 million government grant and uses battery technology, with part of the scheme constructed without overhead lines. The extension is helping to provide faster, more frequent and environmentally friendly journeys across the city.

While these are certainly great projects, and moving the industry in the right direction, this now makes addressing the sector’s fundamental problem of a dearth of talent even more urgent.

How severe are the skill shortages in light rail?

For far too long now, the rail and engineering industries has been suffering from acute skill shortages. The lack of young people choosing STEM careers has now been recognised as a critical problem and businesses and the government have been urged to help attract more talent to the sector in what can be described as Britain’s biggest industrial recruitment drive since the 20th century.

It is estimated that businesses in the UK will need around 203,000 new engineers every year until 2024. Right now, the nation is falling short by around 49,000 engineers a year. The rail industry faces even further skills shortages, with one in five rail engineers currently aged over 55.

To counteract the number of individuals expected to retire soon, the Strategic Transport Apprenticeship Taskforce estimate that 50,000 new people are needed in rail. The transport sector is also changing at a rapid pace, with technological advancements creating new roles and demands every day, meaning there are further potential skills gaps, particularly at higher technical levels.

How businesses can tap into the tech talent pool

The tech talent pool is one of the most in-demand groups sought out by employers across various sectors. Light rail will be competing with more ‘glamorised’ industries, and companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon which are household names for these individuals. Unfortunately, too few people see rail as an exciting career, despite those involved in it knowing what an amazing industry it is to work in. As a case in point, rail has suffered from negative stereotypes of being ‘dull’, masculine and antiquated. But as the examples above show, this is certainly not the case.

In order to attract digital talent, it’s vital that this incorrect image is addressed and changed. Many people are unaware of the latest tech developments happening in the industry and that light rail is, in fact, driven by innovation. New projects must be shouted about more and promoted in ways which target millennials and Gen Z – the digital native demographic.

It’s more successful – and important – to spark interest early. By visiting schools and speaking with students, you can ignite passion and position the sector as a career of choice. Also, introducing young people to the industry, they will be more likely to keep up to date and be interested in the latest developments, and inclined to choose light rail when considering further education and job options. For this reason, it’s also important that businesses visit career fares and engage with graduates in order to stay relevant to this audience.

Tech talent, much like many employees today, now also seek careers with a purpose. According to BetterUp, a career and life coaching platform, more than 9 out of 10 employees are willing to trade a percentage of their lifetime earnings for greater meaning at work. Rail companies must leverage this and convey the importance that light rail plays in communities, and how individuals with advanced engineering and tech capabilities are needed to contribute to creating new, eco-friendly systems.

To attract more highly skilled candidates, it’s also vital that the sector sheds its ‘masculine’ reputation and embraces diversity. It’s no secret that younger generations expect an inclusive environment, and many will certainly be dissuaded by firms which do not have an obviously open culture. To encourage more candidates from diverse talent pools, companies should offer flexibility, actively try and close the gender pay gap and address unconscious bias in the recruitment process.

Internships and apprenticeships are also fantastic ways of introducing tech talent to the light rail industry. Having opportunities to learn and develop will attract people with a growth-mindset and ensure that businesses have professionals available to be taught by senior, retiring members and nurtured into emerging roles.

As technology continues to adapt and evolve at a rapid pace, the rail industry will undoubtedly transform. In order to keep the UK’s light rail systems as one of the best around the world, it’s vital that skill shortages are addressed, and that we ensure that there is a pipeline of tech talent available to continue growth and innovation.

Craig Charlton is Business Development Manager at Samuel Knight International