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‘Reading the Developing Rail Talent series is one form of professional development and you’ve taken time out of your day to do it. Now, make it count.’

I’ve been working within the rail industry as a human factors specialist for over ten years. I’ve had the privilege of working on a very wide variety of projects, studying passenger behaviour at level crossings and at the platform train interface, trialling new procedures for working around signal failures, writing standards on train dispatch and train driver psychometric assessment, and contributing to signalling standards. All these projects have been different, except in one respect: they have all required me to learn a huge amount. I’m now about to embark on another significant development journey, learning how to apply my human factors expertise in aviation, which is a completely new industry for me. This has made the editing of this series particularly interesting, relevant and poignant for me personally.

Learning is critical to the rail industry. It is critical for individuals, organisations and the industry as a whole. Look at what we have coming: significant competition from other modes like autonomous cars; an ageing population and a huge skills shortage; a future railway that potentially looks very different from what we are used to, and the challenge of maintaining the service and safety in the midst of all that change.

Individuals are starting to find themselves in an environment where complexity is growing, and their job is evolving. This can be mentally and emotionally demanding. The choice is either to be passive and hope to survive the changes, or to proactively seek learning opportunities and thrive. Imagine what your career could be, if you chose to respond creatively and flexibly to any challenges that came your way!

For organisations, learning is the key to joining the exclusive club of ‘High Reliability Organisations.’ This means learning what is really going on in operations, what makes failure, and especially what make success. It means learning best practice and lessons from other organisations and industries. It means supporting individuals to learn with each other and with the organisation, to overcome the challenges of change.

For the whole industry, the biggest challenge is to learn how to work together to attract, develop and retain the best talent. We need to think long and hard about how to remove barriers that limit diversity and innovation and stifle learning cultures.

This series also made me reflect on the gap between “the talk and the walk”. Justin Willett's article and the conversations I had with him around this point, really highlighted how difficult it is to run a railway and how difficult to introduce a change in that context. Meanwhile, we at RSSB, are publishing rules, research, guidance and good practice relating to learning and development and expecting organisations to be able to apply it. But, are we ourselves falling into the trap of thinking about 'work as imagined' rather than 'work as done'? Do we recognise enough the realities of running a railway, and could we learn more about these existing constraints to make our products and services more beneficial for our members?

I asked some rail industry thinkers what they thought of the Developing rail talent series. You can read their thoughts below. I was struck by the different perspectives I heard. In particular, it made me wonder if we had been brave enough on some difficult topics, such as diversity, and what skills in particular we actually need.

My personal commitment following this series, it to take what I have learnt with me into my new role as an inspector of air accidents. For me, this means being very open to learning about the realities of ‘work as done’ and mindful of the impact that prescriptive recommendations could have on learning cultures.

There are so many ways to develop yourself and others. Reading the Developing Rail Talent series is one form of professional development and you’ve taken time out of your day to do it. Now, make it count. What commitment can you personally make to develop yourself or help develop talent in your industry?

Industry perspectives

Simon Rennie – General Manager National Training Academy for Rail (NTAR)

A stand out message is this; having attracted and engaged new and existing talent, the role of cultural change is critical to deliver effective leadership to enable free-thinking and empowered teams as opposed to cohorts of compliance-shackled automatons.

Let’s start with a few assumptions. If an industry is to have a sustainable future it needs sufficient numbers of high quality people with the motivation to develop both themselves and the technology around them.

The battle for talent blog image

The Developing Rail Talent series of blogs articulates with clarity both the challenges and objectives of how skills need to be nurtured to create a vibrant and growing industry: promoting attractive careers to attract talent in the first place, genuinely showcasing the digital technologies we have in order to reveal amazing careers still, somehow, hidden in plain sight.

This means applying social intelligence for a younger audience; deploying innovative learning channels to engage new learners at the point of first contact with a rail career and to enhance the quality of knowledge delivery and retention – or put another way converting knowledge that truly engages into lifelong competence.

A stand out message is this; having attracted and engaged new and existing talent, the role of cultural change is critical to deliver effective leadership to enable free-thinking and empowered teams as opposed to cohorts of compliance-shackled automatons. Developing the right behaviours and embedding care in the workplace through mentors are writ large – as is management of risk; demonstrating effective understanding and application of knowledge over and above following instructions thoughtlessly (merely creating the illusion of safety). Pure process, in particular when laced with blame, simply stifles.

Well, Amen to that – this analysis poses important questions for the future direction of travel. How do we sweat digital assets so they become more than training tools and are integrated into the workplace? How do we blend a tolerance for failure (the essence of innovation) into a world where single failures cost lives? And how can we overcome parental and academic prejudice where talent is lost to the Rail Industry from the age of 13 onwards?

For our part at NTAR, to start to answer some of this, our goal is to deliver high quality schemes focusing on delivering both behavioural and technical competence, provide a safe place for learning and curiosity to thrive using both digital channels and hands-on facilities – and in so doing provide in some small part an example of just how good rail can be for the talent we want.

May-Ann Lew - Senior Consultant, Control Systems, Engineering, Design and Project Management, SNC-Lavalin and Rail Week Lead, Young Rail Professionals

Initiatives to attract new people into the industry and improve diversity tend to be coming only from senior management. Each person working in rail can be inspirations to young people, but I don’t think many take that message to heart.

My involvement in Young Rail Professionals has been all outreach and promoting rail careers to young people. I’ve previously led the YRP Ambassadors programme and since 2017 I’ve led and delivered Rail Week - an annual, one week, pan industry open day initiative where we get industry together to host events and open their facilities for young people, parents, teachers to change the image of railways and inspire young people to rail careers. It’s my personal interest to promote all the different types of careers you can follow in the rail industry. The opportunities are abundant.

Innovation in learning and development: are we ready for it? blog image

I couldn’t agree more with the first article in this blog series, ‘Putting rail staff at the heart of the rail industry’s future’. The rail staffs are the most powerful asset to inspire and attract new talent into the industry. Publicity and marketing campaigns can only go so far to bring people in through the door, but if the people are not the focus of the industry, we will have to compete with other industries to retain talent. I joined the rail industry by chance and I stayed in the industry because of the people I have worked with. And many others too share my experience.

Focusing on the people is more important today because the new generation of talent are multi-talented and always looking for new and exciting opportunities. We want to feel challenged. The industry needs to be able to satisfy our hunger for excitement and fulfilment. Young people today have available to them the tools and channels to multitask and pursue many interests at the same time, not just in the area we work or study in.

The article “Innovation in learning and development: are we ready for it?” in the blog series is saying just that. I contrast the rail industry with the experience of my friends working in the start-up world. They are willing give up having a stable income and dedicate all their energy and effort into a passion. They face numerous failures but learned from experience and try again. They are able to build and operate an efficient business, working on more than one role without prior training or qualifications. It’s about their skill-set, how they market themselves and use their skills in different ways. In our industry with its many layers, these young people will feel restricted and unable to perform. Unfortunately, the rail industry may not feel comfortable to work in a way similar to the start-up community and there may be reluctance or fear. But undeniably, that will be the future the industry is heading towards, highly innovative, fluid and fast paced. As an industry, we cannot take our time to change or we’ll be left behind very quickly.

From my personal experience, the industry generally does well in looking after our staff and lots of people do tend to stay in the rail industry. But it is quite odd to me that we do not shout more about what we enjoy in our work and why to others. Initiatives to attract new people into the industry and improve diversity tend to be coming only from senior management. Each person working in rail can be inspirations to young people, but I don’t think many take that message to. Our own people and their inspirational stories are one of our best assets for attracting talent.

Gary Portsmouth – Professional Head of Rail Operations, RSSB

We’ve got a vision, we’ve got a road map, but have we paid enough attention to the people and processes as part of that road map?

Historically, people have been expected to commit a large amount of knowledge to memory, that has been very specific and narrow in focus. Going forward, there’s a recognition that the next generation of rail people probably don’t learn in that way. Their breadth of knowledge is far superior to the generation they leave behind but their depth of knowledge is shallower. What they really are good at is signposting the knowledge and information they require and being able to find it again really quickly using technologies. In my opinion, we need to embrace those preferences in the way we develop our training offering in the future, it’s more about self-discovery learning, and applying tools and techniques that people have grown up with to get the best out of them.

The importance of organisational culture in developing talent blog image

The message that stood out to me the most is the realisation that we are on the cusp of significant change within the industry. I like the term ‘the fourth industrial revolution’. We are a Victorian infrastructure that is going to be moving very quickly into a twenty-first or twenty-second century mode of transport. Thinking about the rail technical strategy, autonomous trains, ticketless travel, all of that will be delivered in our lifetime, potentially. It’s quite frightening really, when you think about where we are today and where we need to be. If you think about the incremental steps we need to take to deliver that. We’ve got a vision, we’ve got a road map, but have we paid enough attention to the people and processes as part of that road map?

We need to truly understand what our needs are and then actively market to the talent pool, so they can see the opportunities that exist within rail. Most importantly, once we’ve whet their appetite, we must deliver on what we told them and give them the opportunities that we promised. It sounds like there is potentially some research to done here, to understand what profiles are needed in the future, and what skills and attributes are needed within those profiles. How do we recruit people with those skills and attributes? I’m not sure our current assessment processes are geared for that.

For me personally, this article series prompts two thoughts. First, we need to reflect on the content and scope of the Rail Industry Standard on Train Driver Selection. Here the focus is on train drivers with rule compliance as a big part. If we keep recruiting in the same way, we might be holding ourselves back from attracting some of the new talent we need. Second, the Driver Training Review (T1016) was about taking a path towards a more blended and personalised learning approach and I am still committed to making that a reality.

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