The highly anticipated Northern Powerhouse Rail plans are certainly gaining momentum, with TfN announcing that the scheme has just received a £70 billion investment. The project will bring 1.3 million people within an hour’s commute of four of the region’s economic centres – currently only 10,000 can reach them in that time. The increased connectivity is expected to support the creation of 850,000 jobs, providing a £100 billion boost to the economy. Northern Powerhouse Rail would link the North’s six main cities and Manchester Airport, as well as other significant economic centres. While the ambitious rail project is receiving a raise in investments, we must still consider what impact the skills shortage will have on its success.

Here at Samuel Knight, we have previously written on the skills shortage within the rail industry and preached the importance of a new approach towards managing talent in the sector. This notion has been echoed by many other experts in rail. While the skills shortage is certainly no industry secret, it is definitely a problem that must be addressed immediately if we are to see these complex programmes through to completion. In fact, in order to meet the demand of increase in rail projects, research from Engineering UK revealed that the UK will need 1.8 million new engineers and technicians by 2025.

Skills impact on rail projects

There is a chronic skills shortage in the rail industry, with research estimating that a lack of investment in skills will cost the industry over £300 million by 2024, and could escalate to over £1 billion 10 years later. To sustain projects such as the Northern Powerhouse Rail, it is estimated that the UK needs to double the number of annual university engineering graduates and apprentices by 2020. Unfortunately, the rail sector is not only failing to attract the younger generation, but also BAME individuals and female professionals. The Rail Delivery Group conducted a survey, which revealed that a shocking 81% of women in Britain have never even considered working in the rail industry. The perception that the rail industry is dominated by men is one of the core reasons why women have a negative view on the sector, with 11% blaming it for their lack of interest in working in this arena, 16% saying that they would not consider a job in a male dominated industry, and 23% saying that they would not feel comfortable working in one.

Rail as a career choice

To resolve this issue, we must first understand why there is a lack of diversity and youth entering the field. The current reputation of the rail industry has a major influence over the skills impact on rail projects. The issue begins with the fact that there are not enough individuals entering the field as there are leaving. Over the years the rail industry has been portrayed as a labour-intensive career which is for people who decided to not go into higher education – this of course is not true. Effort must be made to showcase the rail industry as the dynamic field that it is, where academic and professional qualifications are combined with innovation and a problem-solving mindset.

This can only be achieved by building an early appetite for engineering. By engaging with students through workshops and educating them on how fulfilling a career within rail can be, the chances of them joining the industry when leaving education will be increased greatly. Ideally, the central government would tweak the current science, technology and mathematics (STEM) curriculum to include engineering-related problems and ideas.

Retaining knowledge

Another critical issue that the rail industry must address is retaining knowledge. As alluded to earlier, the rail sector is facing a retirement cliff, with figures showing that over 40 per cent of all professionally-registered engineers are aged 50-plus. This presents the problem of a significant loss of expertise and knowledge in the not too distant future. With such emphasis on ramping up the number of apprentices, it is vital that there is an adequate number of experienced professionals who can mentor them. A formal process should be put in place to ensure that middle management is trained well and that this knowledge is being pipelined.

The immediate solution

Of course, this is more of a long-term solution, meaning more immediate action needs to be taken to address the challenge at hand. To improve the current negative state of skills impact on rail projects, investment in robust recruitment processes is necessary. To ensure that the very best talent is hired for these grand projects, an experienced recruiter with in depth knowledge of the sector must be involved. The hiring process should be carried out strategically and with efficiency. The current workforce is extremely valuable to the industry and are essential to start off tasks such as the Northern Powerhouse Rail on the right foot.

Here at Samuel Knight, we have partnered hard-working candidates with our clients to achieve ambitious rail projects that will benefit the country. We understand that the recruitment process is one of the most important steps in ensuring success. Our experienced rail recruitment consultants are true experts with established networks, and strong relationships with leading companies. Allow us to connect you to the right talent for your projects.


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