Closing the UK rail industry’s skills gap to promote transformation

Andrew Willetts, Competency Training MarketplaceTM Business Development Manager at Sopra Steria 

Coined the biggest shakeup in over three decades, William-Schapps’s ambitious plan outlined in May is set to transform Britain’s railways. One of the ten outcomes outlined by the Government to realise this plan is creating a workforce that is skilled and innovative. Yet, research shows UK rail already faces a potential skills shortage crisis by 2025 if it doesn’t act now to reverse this 

Not only could this impact the delivery of a modern railway that is efficient, sustainable, and best serves the public, but it will also undermine organisations’ own future in an increasingly competitive industry. So, how can businesses ensure they have the right talent in place to drive forward much-needed innovation within the industry and their own firms? 

We must close the skills gap, now 

There are a significant number of transformation projects, such as HS2, set to take place over the next few decades, and while we’ve seen the launch of the new National College for High Speed Rail, now the National College for Advanced Transport & Infrastructure in Birmingham and Doncaster to provide future training to support work, the industry rapidly needs to ramp up skills development.  

An aging population, coupled with a low appetite from younger generations to join the railway industry, means we’re now falling short of fundamental skills. These include those associated with track infrastructure, electrification and signalling systems, as well as more management and specialist skills including bid management, software architects that deliver train control management systems for rolling stock, and testing and validation engineers. 

We must work collectively to close this skills gap if we’re to realise improved operational efficiency across the network and deliver a better end user experience to passengers and freight using the railways. Only through a fully trained and skilled workforce can the industry ensure more projects are completed on time, within budget and to a better quality – benefiting the entire rail supply chain by reducing costs from delays, materials and rework, while also helping organisations be more competitive too. 

Upskilling requires a cultural shift 

Upskilling the existing workforce will play a critical role in solving the skills gap. Not only does it give employees the opportunity to work in other disciplines within the industry and offer promotion prospects, it also encourages career longevity, offers increased pay and subsidised education opportunities, and creates a culture that workers want to remain in – all things new entrants will also be motivated by. 

Small businesses can also benefit by producing multi-disciplinary staff – workers able to do more than one role thanks to new automation technologies that free them up to take on more responsibilities, while saving the business money too. 

However, some organisations aren’t doing enough to engage or encourage their workers to upskill.  

It requires a cultural shift from the top-down, starting by developing clear personal development plans for frontline teams so they can see how they can progress into management roles. This will empower employees to have more control over their career prospects and encourage them to remain in the industry, while allowing organisations to expand their services and products as they benefit from having more skilled workers. 

Futureproofing the industry through training 

To futureproof the workforce, leaders must couple culture with practical training. With regulations around safety consistently evolving and digital continuing to disrupt the rail industry, it’s important businesses look at competency-based training to ensure their employees remain in touch with new technologies while staying compliant and safe. 

While training can be expensive and takes time, it is the best method to ensure more productive, innovative, skilled, and motivated teams. Cultivating specific skills within the workforce in areas such as BIM, virtual reality, predictive maintenance and so on, will also help organisations be more competitive as the UK railway continues to digitise. 

It will open doors to new business opportunities since they’ll be able to widen the services they offer to market and promote a leaner work ethic, all of which can be used to fend off rivals – a no brainer for those looking to thrive. Additionally, accreditation is increasingly highly-regarded amongst the industry and can be used to support relations with customers, as well to win work during tenders. 

Final thoughts 

Now is the time for the rail industry to act when it comes to closing the skills gap by upskilling their workforce. However, training is not a tick-box exercise. To futureproof both employees and organisations, there must be ongoing management of competencies and alignment of training with these, especially as new technologies emerge and regulations change. Through an agile approach to upskilling, not only will organisations enhance their own business but they will also be best placed to deliver a modern railway that will create a brighter future for transportation in Britain. 

This article was written for Rail Professional UK Business Magazine for Railway Industry