Paul Payne looks at why the industry must focus on tech skills in 2017…

You won’t need me to tell you, but technology is all around us. It’s infiltrated our daily lives and it’s likely that some of you will be reading this on devices that have now essentially formed an added limb in recent years. While rail has made some advances with the introduction of the likes of contactless payments, other industries have harnessed – or have begun to harness – the true value and potential of technology to a much greater extent. The financial services field, for example, has made it possible for us to review our entire banking set up at the click of a button, or the scan of a retina or fingerprint in many cases. However, the rail industry still has a long way to go to make the most out of technology, and that’s partly because it doesn’t have the depth of skills in place to drive this forward progression.

But why should rail firms recruit for tech expertise in 2017 and how do they actually do it?

Technology holds huge potential for the rail industry. It would be wrong to suggest that it hasn’t been adopted in some ways, anyone who has watched the Crossrail documentaries on BBC will understand the complexity of the project and the value that technology in its various forms is providing. However, on a wider scale the UK rail industry could be doing so much more. Networks in countries like Japan and China, where technology is more widely and effectively adopted, put ours to shame.

Technology recruitment.

Hiring tech specialists is becoming more and more important as smaller operators are beginning to push technology-led initiatives at a rapid pace. These schemes have the ability to rapidly improve efficiency and can make the customer journey faster and more enjoyable which, ultimately, is what the rail industry is here to do. ITSO has launched a smart ticketing, ‘Oyster-like’ programme which the firm suggests could make customer travel more flexible and convenient, while Chiltern Rail is also planning to go ticketless. In addition, SilverRail is launching an Uber-inspired project to improve customer service performance and there’s also the wider scale electrification of networks and ongoing train upgrades to take into account.

However, while these schemes are admirable, they won’t be adopted across the board and on a wider scale until there is a much greater depth of tech expertise in place, which can really only be achieved by putting more focus on the hiring of technology specialists.

Recruiting for tech skills requires a very different approach to that needed to hire engineers, for example, where traditional attributes – that the rail industry is historically strong at sourcing – are well known and relatively easy to find. On the plus side, the sector has never faced challenges hiring to the same degree that other fields have experienced. The reason? Partly because, well, everyone wants to work on the trains when they’re younger, don’t they? However, it’s considerably harder for firms – in any sector – to source the tech skills they need. Not only are specialists relatively few and far between as a result of ongoing skills shortages, but tech experts often want different factors from employers than the professionals the rail industry has traditionally looked for have done. They will also have to recruit talent directly from the likes of the financial and digital industries, which are more experienced and better equipped to attract – and retain – these types of individuals.

A different approach

So how do you do it? Firstly, you need to have a powerful employee value proposition (EVP) that speaks directly to the individuals you are trying to recruit. Technology specialists want freedom – the freedom to innovate, to be creative and to dictate the details of their role. They seek more than just a good pay package and want to be judged on outputs, rather than time spent in the office. They want to be able to operate in an entrepreneurial, ‘hot-house’ culture. For firms that like to do things traditionally this can throw up some significant challenges and can make hiring difficult. However, if you want to lure these people away from the likes of Google and Facebook, where they will be allowed to designate their modus operandi, then it’s a must. You’ll also obviously need to invest in cutting-edge technology for these professionals and look to instigate training and upskilling programmes to ensure these skills aren’t lost once the individual(s) leave your organisation and are spread among the workforce.

In addition, your firm will need to know about the ways it can differentiate its EVP and way it approaches talent to different audiences. Professionals in the ‘millennial’ generation want different factors from their employer than the one that preceded them and those in ‘generation Z’ are likely to want different factors to that group. That means potentially stepping out of your comfort zone and offering the likes of flexible working, or launching your hiring campaign on social media, for example, which many firms may still not yet feel comfortable doing. Critically, employers need to ensure that what they’re promising matches up with the reality of what the role actually offers. If it doesn’t, and they’ve promised their new tech hires the world and delivered very little, then they’re just likely to resign, leaving firms back at stage one all over again.

Technology is coming whether we like it or not and taking on tech skills isn’t just an approach for firms that already recognise the benefits it can offer, but for organisations across the board. Most readers will have seen that impact that IT issues can have on the rail network. Indeed, just last month a relatively minor glitch caused all ticket machines in the UK to fall out of service simultaneously, potentially costing providers millions in lost revenue. By seeking those with tech expertise it’s less likely that these types of issues would occur again in the future and, if they do, they will get resolved more quickly than they currently are. There’s also the enormous threat of cyber crime lurking around the corner and firms will have to work hard to ensure their defences are up to scratch, which again, requires the skills of specialists.

The future for the rail industry is undoubtedly tech-led, however if operators truly want to be able to harness the full potential that technology could offer, then they’ll have to readdress their hiring strategies and start actively seeking out tech specialists from other industries. By doing so, they’ll be able to lower costs, become more efficient and ultimately quicken customer journeys and deliver their services at a lower cost. What’s not to like about that?


Paul Payne is managing director and co-founder of One Way