For many rail travellers, engineering is simply viewed as the cause of delays to their journeys. Many would not even be aware that rails are welded, let alone recognise the challenges faced by the sector in recruiting and developing the next generation of welders, welding technologists and welding engineers. However, the sector now faces significant challenges in filling crucial posts within the rail welding management, supervisory and delivery structure.
Engineering UK recently published its annual report on the engineering skills situation in the UK (www.engineeringuk.com). The Engineering UK 2013, state of engineering report provides excellent statistical analysis of education and employment in the engineering sector and highlights strategic actions that are necessary to address the existing and emerging challenges for individuals and employers. The rail industry is a significant employer of engineers and technicians for manufacture, construction, operation and maintenance of a diverse range of infrastructure, and passenger transport and freight assets. Welding engineering is a relatively small but vitally important aspect of rail transportation and the challenges highlighted in the report are likely to impact the rail welding niche harder than other sectors of engineering.
The demographic challenge facing employers in the forthcoming years is set out in excellent detail in the Engineering UK report. The source of supply of technicians and graduates over the next 10 years is the 10-19 age-group, the numbers of which will experience significant decline between now and 2015. Within this vital cohort of potential technicians, technologists and engineers, the projected number of 18-year-olds will decrease annually from 2012 to 2020, from 772,500 to 688,700, with the exception of a slight increase in 2015. As a result, there will be fewer young people leaving school and available to enter Further and Higher Education or work. The anticipated rise in the 18 year-old population, after 2020, comes too late to offset the in-work demographics.
The most economically active age-group, between 20 and 64, will experience a gradual decline. In 2012, the estimated proportion of 20 to 64-year-olds was 59.4 per cent, declining to 57.1 per cent by 2022, and to 54.5 per cent by 2035. We have to face the facts that a large proportion of personnel employed in welding trades and fulfilling welding technologist and welding engineer roles in industry today are over 55 years of age, and that some significant individuals in the rail welding sector are set to retire in the next few years with no succession plan in place.
Other industry sectors are turning to a ‘grow your own’ strategy to address the skills shortages and demographic challenges, using a combination of apprenticeships to draw in new talent, and upskilling existing employees to feed succession plans. The rail engineering sector faces two particular hurdles to following such a strategy. Firstly, as Tim Jessop, immediate past executive officer of the Institute of Rail Welding, has often said, you are unlikely to be accepted in the rail sector unless you were, ‘born in the cess and speak with a Derbyshire accent.’ Such perceptions stifle recruitment of new entrants to the sector, and it is essential that we move the recruitment question, and decision, onto the competences required for the role. Network Rail has made a significant stride into this by producing competence-based job descriptions. It is now necessary for the sector to agree rail welding role competence requirements that explicitly identify the knowledge, skills, experience and behaviours that have to be developed to fill all of the vacancies that are set to emerge.
The second hurdle to a rail welding ‘grow your own’ strategy is the widespread use of self-employed and short-term contract labour, the individuals who are sometimes referred to as ‘weekend warriors’. Many rail welding operatives show little interest in career progression that will require them to exchange their existing work schedule for a regular depot or desk job. As such, the feedstock within the rail welding sector is unlikely to support an upskilling programme without significant change in the employment status of welders, and a much improved understanding of the benefits of career progression among all those involved, employers and employees alike.
Even without these two sector-specific hurdles to overcome, competition for recruits from the diminishing pool of available talent will be fierce. Engineering UK 2013 reports that, over the next eight years, engineering companies are projected to have 1.488 million job openings requiring engineering skills. Within this, the average annual demand for people with Level 4+ (HNC/D, Foundation Degree, undergraduate or postgraduate and equivalent) qualifications is projected to be approximately 87,000 recruits per year. Worryingly, only around 46,000 people qualify at this level each year in the UK. For people qualified at Level 3 (BTec National, S/NVQ level 3, advanced diploma, Advanced Apprenticeship), an average demand of 69,000 recruits per year is set against supply of only around 27,000 UK apprentices a year who qualify at Level 3.
Throwing money at the problem is unlikely to be an affordable solution. The Engineering UK 2013 report shows rail construction and maintenance operatives to be the fifth highest paid STEM technician or craft career, with an average salary of £31,168 against a national mean average salary of £26,871, and contract rail welders may earn significantly more. Seeking employees abroad is no solution either, as The 2012 Talent Shortage Survey conducted by the Manpower Group shows skilled trade workers and engineers to be first and second in the top ten jobs that employers are having difficulty filling on a global basis.
Resolving skills shortages and effective succession planning in the rail welding sector will require new employees to enter the sector; attracting young people into rail engineering is not a matter of competition between rail sector employers, it requires cooperation to enable the rail sector to compete effectively with all other sectors of employment in the recruitment battle and to retain and develop high calibre employees for progression.
With a relatively small requirement for skills development, compared to other sector skills demands, the rail welding sector is unlikely to command much influence over FE and HE institutions and the availability of education and training programmes with high relevance. As such, bespoke training and education and modular elements that can be selected to provide rail welding engineering content within broader welding engineering frameworks is the most appropriate way to develop the necessary knowledge and skills.
Although Tim Jessop has light-heartedly used his quote on numerous occasions, as a man who was not born in the cess and with an accent from northeast of the Pennines, he has been most successful in bringing effective cooperation to the rail welding sector. Driven by the output of a study into rail welding training and skills commissioned by Network Rail, Tim established and led the Institute of Rail Welding (www.iorw.org) in bringing together employers and training providers in the sector to share technology and contribute to the development of enhanced rail welding training and education. Tim secured European Collaborative funding to deliver the Railsafe and Railsafe 2 projects, which led to the development of UK National Occupational Standards (NOS), Level 2 NVQs and European Diplomas in aluminothermic and arc welding of rail.
The Institute of Rail Welding has 378 members, comprising both individual and corporate memberships, who benefit from events and activities that raise awareness of rail welding issues and provide continuing professional development. To extend high quality education in rail welding beyond Level 2, the IoRW members are currently developing a Level 3 Diploma in Rail Welding and have supported my submission of welding engineering content to provide a rail welding pathway in a Level 4 Higher Apprenticeship Framework being developed by Semta.
With government commitment to improvement and expansion of our railway infrastructure, including completion of The Northern Hub, and electrification of the Midland Main Line, Cardiff valley lines and the Great Western Main Line through to Swansea, there will be a huge range of exciting opportunities for people coming into the sector. Rail welding employers now need to create vacancies to bring new talent into the sector and cooperate to enable these new starters to gain skills and knowledge in recognised centres of excellence, and experience within and across the sector to equip them with the competences to be the rail welders, welding technologists and welding engineers of tomorrow.
Chris Eady is the associate director for Professional Affairs at TWI Ltd, chief executive of TWI Certification Ltd and executive officer of the Institute of Rail Welding.