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Recruiting railway people

Posted by: Mark Jones 1 Feb 16 - 5:33PM  | Recruitment

With the railway sector looking forward to continued investment in both infrastructure and rolling stock, the challenge will be to introduce long-term planning to provide a flexible engineering workforce. Based on his experience working in the sector, Philip Delaloye, Senior Recruitment Consultant for the rail division at Jonathan Lee Recruitment, identifies the key areas that should inform skills acquisition and development strategy in the sector.

Philip DelalelaloyeThe upgrading of the UK’s railway infrastructure and rolling stock is rarely out of the headlines, and some of the uncertainty that has stalled progress in recent months is now receding, meaning that companies in the rail sector can renew their focus on the opportunities that continued investment in the sector is likely to yield.

The number of engineering and technical workers needed will need to grow by more than 7,000 to meet the needs of high speed rail alone, according to the National Infrastructure Plan for Skills, while investment in conventional rail will create 900 additional jobs for skilled workers. The number of rolling stock and traction vehicles will increase to around 21,000 by 2025 and therefore additional digital and communications expertise will be required to efficiently operate an increasingly sophisticated network. In addition, extension of light rail systems is also expected to support the economic benefits of high speed rail.

All positive for the economy and for UK manufacturing then? If only it were so simple.  The issue of skills shortage is still a key factor in success, with a significant proportion of the workforce in the rail sector approaching retirement age, with predictions that at least 2,000 retirees will be highly skilled, experienced workers that will be hard to replace.

Towards the end of October Network Rail announced an increase of over 50% in the number of engineering graduate spaces for 2016. This focus on attracting new talent into the industry is to be welcomed and the technological advancements required by HS2 and other projects will boost the appeal of the rail sector to graduates after long being viewed as a poor cousin to more progressive sectors such as aerospace or automotive.

Companies looking to meet the immediate need for experienced engineers have to be more creative to increase their chances of securing the talent they need.  First and foremost, employers must protect the existing workforce, putting in place a retention and development plan to help retain staff in a highly competitive market.  They should assess future skills requirements and develop a long-term strategy to harness the full potential of staff, equipping them for the challenges ahead. This may involve training, in which case the use of interims is an effective way of delivering highly targeted programmes to upskill staff and enhance the leadership skills needed to capitalise on the business opportunities.

This inward audit of skills should then provide a clear identification of gaps in expertise which are required to meet future opportunities. Flexibility has become a defining factor in meeting the challenge of the skills shortage in the UK.  In our recent roundtable event regarding engagement of Midlands manufacturers with HS2, this was a key topic of concern and discussion from business leaders.

As a specialist recruiter, we are ideally placed to advise our clients on how to identify and leverage transferable skills and why this makes strong commercial sense. Different industries experience peaks and troughs in staffing needs at differing times, particularly in manufacturing and therefore working with a recruitment partner can give rail businesses real insight into availability of candidates, transferability of skills and knowledge across design, development, engineering and manufacturing businesses.  Following recent redundancies in the yellow goods sector for instance, we have successfully placed these engineers into roles with clients in the aerospace, defence, infrastructure and rail sectors.

Whilst no-one is pretending that the transition is seamless, with flexibility and enthusiasm from both employer and worker, then a hire that might initially have appeared to be a compromise can quickly prove a real asset.

The whole process of engaging with the major infrastructure projects such as HS2 (and the upcoming HS3 to feed the Northern Power House) may also involve skills sets for tendering and compliance that can present a real challenge to smaller companies, especially tier 1 and tier 2 suppliers to the major contractors. In these instances, leveraging the expertise of highly skilled interims to support tender preparation and delivery can produce a significant long-term return on investment.

At our recent industry roundtable with Made in the Midlands, it became apparent that the ability to offer a sensible work-life balance is increasingly becoming a differentiator when it comes to attracting skilled and experienced engineers.  This follows through to another aspect – that of retaining skilled female engineers, many of whom are lost to the industry when returning following maternity leave, due to inflexibility in working patterns.

The rapid evolution in the rail sector is a tremendous opportunity to rethink recruitment and put in place measures that will make the industry increasingly attractive to a diverse range of talented and skilled engineers. Those employers that are prepared to think creatively about solving the challenges ahead will be on the fast track to success during one of the most exciting periods of investment that the sector has ever seen.

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