Alex Pond, Managing Director at Intertrain, a City & Guilds business explains how diversifying the rail industry can tackle skills shortages

As businesses across the UK grapple with major skills shortages, in part thanks to the impact of Covid-19 on the jobs market, many industries are struggling to run efficiently and at full power. Of course, skills shortages and recruitment issues are not new to the rail industry. Back in 2020, our Back on Track research which we wrote in collaboration with the National Skills Academy for Rail
(NSAR) found that the rail industry would need between 7,000 and 12,000 additional workers each year for the next five to ten years to be able to close skills gaps in the industry.

As identified in the report, one of the most significant – and existing – factors at play is the rail industry’s ageing workforce. With 28 per cent of the rail workforce aged over 50, and some 15,000 workers due to retire by 2025, the sector is vulnerable to a huge exodus of experienced talent in the very near future.

This means that the industry desperately needs new talent – but it’s struggling to recruit, especially younger people and those from already under-represented groups. Indeed, our research found that only 16 per cent of the current rail workforce are female, and just 24 per cent of women would consider a career in rail (compared to 41 per cent of men). In addition, 26 per cent of 18 to 24-year olds say they would consider a career in rail, compared to 39 per cent of 35 to 44-year olds and 27 per cent of those from ethnic minority groups would consider working in rail, compared to 32 per cent of white people.

It’s clear that opening up the talent pool to include a more diverse range of candidates – including women, younger generations and people from ethnic minority groups – could be a key solution to help fuel the UK’s rail talent pipeline. But there’s a lot of work to do here to improve the way the industry is perceived among these groups, to create an inclusive working environment, and raise awareness of all the great opportunities on offer.

So, what steps can employers in the industry take to widen their prospective talent pool and bring more diverse people and skills into their business for the coming months and years ahead?

Promoting flexible, inclusive roles
A perceived lack of flexibility in careers in rail is undoubtedly excluding certain groups from entering the industry – women being the prime example. For example, our Back on Track research found that more women than men cited the need to travel away from home (20 per cent vs 13 per cent) as reasons why they would not consider a career in the rail industry.

With women more likely to have caring responsibilities outside of work, it’s natural that they’d require more flexibility and sociable hours. And whilst some jobs in the industry may of course entail unsociable working hours and necessitate a journey from home – it’s most definitely not the case for all. If employers want to recruit from a wider, more diverse talent pool, they should consider how they can demonstrate which roles are more accessible and flexible, and therefore more appealing to women and other groups currently left out of the industry.

Our Back on Track research found that people from ethnic minority groups were more likely than their white counterparts to say that they didn’t know enough about careers in the rail sector (53 per cent vs 41 per cent), so clearly careers advice and guidance targeted at people from these groups could help to attract more people to the industry.

Recognising that some people entering the industry might need training or upskilling, employers should consider widening the eligibility criteria for their training schemes, by offering training
opportunities for applicants who might not have exactly the right experience or credentials. And when it comes to training and upskilling, flexibility matters here too, as some employees might struggle to fit this around their responsibilities. To help people from all backgrounds get the skills they need to succeed, employers should look at how they can make their training provision more flexible and accessible, for example by introducing remote or bite-sized learning.

Casting a wider net
For those already considering a career in the rail industry, a few questions would come to mind. Where can I find opportunities near me? What types of roles are there? How can I progress in the industry? But for many potential candidates, they may not be aware of rail as a career opportunity at all.

To allow themselves to recruit from a wider talent pool, employers have a role to cast a wider net and find ways to reach new audiences – including women, young people and people from ethnic minority groups. This means placing ads across a variety of platforms, including different social media platforms and websites, or even local radio, in addition to the usual jobs boards, to increase visibility.

And as well as this, it’s important for employers to proactively demonstrate their ambition to be an inclusive employer, celebrating employees from diverse backgrounds on their website and social
channels, and ensuring recruitment pages and advertisements portray this inclusivity as well. Boosting their image and employer brand in this way could help businesses make huge strides in boosting their appeal to a wider talent pool.

And last, but not least, employers should ensure the wording of their job ads is as inclusive as possible. Employers should highlight key benefits, such as flexibility, that could widen their appeal – after all, the more inclusive your job ad is, the more likely you are to attract candidates from all backgrounds and tap into their invaluable talent.

Raise the profile of the industry
The rail industry – and the transport industry more broadly, has historically struggled to demonstrate itself as an attractive employer. With perceptions of low pay and unsociable hours, our latest Great Jobs research found that only 46 per cent of working age adults would be proud to work in the transport and logistics sector. Compared to 71 per cent of workers stating that they’d feel proud to work in healthcare, and 62 per cent in education, it’s clear that the transport and logistics sector are facing an uphill battle when it comes to improving their reputation and making the sector an attractive place to work.

For rail employers, there’s an urgent need to demonstrate why working in the rail industry is something people should be proud of. After all, our rail system is crucial to the connectivity and functionality of the UK economy, and the importance of our rail workers in keeping the country on its feet shouldn’t be lost. For this, we need support from the government in funding and facilitating nation-wide campaigns to raise the profile of the sector and the rewarding careers available. Meanwhile, employers can take an important role in celebrating their employees, and restoring the pride associated with working in rail, in order to capture the hearts of minds of potential talent across the country.

The bottom line is that there are actions that need to be taken to tackle the skills shortages currently facing the rail sector. But the most important answer is diversification. We need to work together to take steps to create inclusive and thriving careers in rail, and the time to take them is now.

Alex Pond is Managing Director at Intertrain, a City & Guilds business