Living and working in Derby I find myself based in one of the UK’s greatest railway engineering cities and what’s considered to be the densest cluster of rail-related companies in Europe*.

Although much of Derby’s historic rail heritage has gone, and despite the blow dealt to Bombardier a couple of years ago, it’s clear that passion for the industry and the desire to take advantage of future investment in Britain’s rail network is stronger than ever.

This drive and determination to grab the unrivalled opportunities that will be generated by the government’s rail spending plans, which will see more than £25 billion invested in more than 200 major rail projects over the next seven years, and Network Rail’s planned expenditure of £37.5 billion up to 2020, is exactly what the city, and the country, needs.

Surely there’s nowhere better than the UK to take on these ambitious rail projects? No workforce more skilled?

As the UK is considered to be one of the global leaders of the rail industry you’d have thought the answer would be ‘of course not’, right?

Wrong actually. When you delve more deeply into the sector it doesn’t take long to discover that the UK is experiencing a severe skills shortage. NSARE (National Skills Academy for Railway Engineering) estimates a need for up to 2,000 signalling and telecommunications professionals and around 1,000 electrification and plant engineers in the next few years alone.

If this shortage isn’t addressed it will have a serious impact on the industry’s ability to fulfil the demanding and highly skilled projects set to come on stream, for example the development of HS2 and the electrification of the Midland Main Line.

So how can the sector find itself faced with the opportunity to take on some of the most ambitious rail projects since the Victorian era without having a big enough and sufficiently qualified workforce to deliver them?

To start with engineering isn’t considered to be a particularly sexy sector – certainly not among teenagers, our future workforce – which is worrying when research by Engineering UK suggests that one in five young people will need to become an engineer ‘if the UK has any chance of addressing the severe skills shortages and rebalancing the economy towards advanced manufacturing’.

When 11,000 13-16 year olds were asked in a recent survey** about their job ambitions, becoming an actor, teacher or sports professional featured in the top ten – engineering didn’t.

Blaming a lack of ‘glamour’ does seem to be a bit of a cop out. Shouldn’t the sector be looking more closely at how it promotes itself, enhances its reputation among the younger generation, and ultimately raises awareness of what are some of the best career opportunities out there, and the different routes into them?

Skills shortage impacts on cost

Whatever the reason for it the lack of young blood entering the industry is a serious cause for concern – experienced workers have a small pool of people to pass their skills and technical expertise down to, and who’s there to take up the mantle when they retire? As the industry employs an ageing workforce, in traction and rolling stock 20 per cent*** of the workforce is aged 55 or over, this wealth of knowledge is at risk of being lost forever.

The skills shortage impacts on cost too. A number of the rail companies we’ve spoken to choose a short term but costly fix for the skills gaps they encounter. They tend to prefer paying an experienced engineer more than a competitor to ensure a project is achieved on time, rather than investing in the recruitment and on-going training and development of young engineers. Financially this can’t be sustainable in the long-term and it only exacerbates the issue.

Serious lack of females in engineering

Add to this the significant lack of females in engineering jobs. The latest industry figures show just six per cent of engineering jobs in the UK are taken up by women and more specifically only 4.4 per cent of the current rail workforce, made up of 84,500 engineers, are women.

Why aren’t we tapping into this potential pool of talent more (women studying for engineering degrees tend to get better results overall than men)? Surely we’ve moved past the stage of an engineering career being seen as ‘one for the boys’? If we haven’t then something needs to be done to demonstrate the varied career opportunities up for grabs, or does the industry need to start by making a career within it a more viable, flexible and appealing choice for women?

If this trend continues the future doesn’t look bright but bleak. Ambitious projects may be delayed or left unfinished, a concern shared by rail union RMT, some may not even get off the ground, and tenders could be awarded to overseas contractors.

The industry will also end up increasingly relying on employing skilled workers from Europe and beyond. This wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t for the fact that the UK’s Rail Network is perceived by many countries to be the best in the world, countries who draw on our knowledge and capabilities to ensure best practice in their own approach.

We wouldn’t have quite the same clout if the knowledge they were drawing from came from their own home grown expertise, and the UK’s inevitable demotion from ‘world leading’ would be a tough one to stomach.

Improving this situation requires a collective effort from government, the rail and wider engineering sectors and education providers, and it’s encouraging to see this is already happening.

University of Derby at the forefront

The University of Derby is involved with plans to build a National Centre for Supply Chain Innovation in Derby which focuses on the competitiveness and growth of companies in the ‘trains, planes and automobiles’ supply chains, part of a £40 million government project to develop business and manufacturing.

A University Technical College to develop engineering and technology skills in young people – run by the University, Derby College and an employer group including Rolls-Royce – recently received government approval and is due to open in September 2014.

With higher tuition fees we’re finding that students are making more informed and considered choices when it comes to what degree they opt to do. Engineering provides an exciting, flexible and well-paid career and this is resonating with students as applications to our Engineering degree courses have increased by almost 32 per cent over the last five years.

At UDC we’ve also developed a number of bespoke learning programmes that lead to an academic qualification for companies looking to invest in their workforce and ultimately improve productivity, profitability and staff retention.

Our bespoke Bachelor in Engineering (BEng), which is contextualised to each organisation, is ideal for companies looking to nurture young talent who can then make an immediate and demonstrable business impact.

The Master of Science (MSc) Professional Engineering provides a workbased postgraduate route to Chartered Engineer status that is supported by the Engineering Council, and the new APM accredited Postgraduate Certificate in Professional Development: Programme and Project Management has been developed based on industry feedback. It seeks to introduce project and programme management in a generic way so that it can be applied directly to the management of major formal projects within an organisational context.

If we can capture the younger generation’s imagination and inspire them to choose engineering as a career, whilst investing properly in the training and development of new and existing workforces, then the sector should find itself fighting fit and ready to take on the world.

* According to Ian Greenway, president of the Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire Chamber of Commerce

** The report, by the Education and Employers Taskforce, examined the ambitions of young people aged 13 to 18 and mapped them against projections for skills demands.

*** NSARE Report