The Battle for Talent

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“The rail industry, like all engineering intensive sectors, is facing increasing competition for the top talent. I find it tragic that the industry is perceived by the young as less modern, less exciting, less well-paid and less innovative than elsewhere. We need to act now and collaborate as one rail industry!” - Shamit Gaiger

The challenge

Rail has never been so popular, with journeys doubling in the last twenty years and demand projected to keep growing. To meet this demand, unprecedented investment of around £100 billion is planned over the next 10 years. The Skills Intelligence Model we have developed at the National Skills Academy for Rail (NSAR) tells us that we’ll need over 50,000 new recruits to our sector, with new skills to deliver our future rail system.

Our future railway is a very exciting one! It is highly digitised and technologically innovative with ever shorter product development cycles. Even more exciting is the potential of Artificial Intelligence and the remarkable opportunities through new developments in nanotechnology, logistics, and high-performance computing. The “fourth industrial revolution” – or “Industry 4.0” – is a game-changer. It blends physical and information systems, making use of the huge quantities of data we all generate. Fast increasing computational power is enabling us to make sense of this data, creating rich opportunities for innovation. We are already some way along this digital journey – the Internet of Things, Building Information Modelling (BIM), low-energy sensor networks, smart infrastructure and smart highways, are all here now.

The steady integration of technology within our infrastructure and lives will enable rail to be more productive, customer-focused, automated and seamlessly integrated with other modes. We will be providing services tailored to customers’ demands. We will provide personalised information in real time, connecting people, communities, and facilitating agglomeration and growth. This means we will require a wide array of different skills and capabilities across rail professions.

The successful rail professional will have strong analytical skills, practical ingenuity, creativity, good stakeholder engagement and communication skills, business knowledge, leadership, project management, high ethical standards, professionalism, dynamism, agility, resilience, flexibility, and the desire to pursue lifelong learning. As for engineering skills, whilst the fundamentals of engineering will not change, the way engineers work will evolve and reflect changes in the demand for engineering services.  Engineers will have to be interdisciplinary (combining mechanical, software and electrical expertise), proficient in system-based approaches and capable of satisfying demands for customisation.  They will form an increasingly diverse talent pool. At the same time, we will need the skills required to maintain and operate legacy systems. This is very challenging.

To achieve our ambition for an exciting future rail system, we will have to attract and retain the very best of talent.

The problem

The rail industry, like all engineering intensive sectors such as automotive, highways, energy, construction, advanced manufacturing and telecommunications, is facing increasing internal and external competition for the top talent. Engineering UK estimates that the country will need 100,000 engineering graduates every year until 2020 in order to maintain the current employment levels in all industries. However, in the UK only 25,000 engineers are graduating every year, while India is producing 8 times as many, and China 20 times as many. These figures don’t take into account the impact Brexit may have. Furthermore, in rail we are increasingly competing for talent with more “attractive” industries such as space, gaming, media and internet business companies such as Google and Amazon.

Moreover, if the skills challenge is not addressed in the short-term, the long-term effects of accumulated skills shortages and gaps will result in significant delays or even cancellations of major planned railway investments. The estimated cost of such a scenario to the UK economy is in the region of £1.1 billion (GVA) per year.  This is equivalent to about 23,000 permanent jobs (assuming £50,000 GVA per job and 20% of planned investments is delayed or cancelled) – see “The cost of not addressing skills issues in the rail sector” published by RSSB/NSAR/Atkins, 21 October 2015.  Cost to rail businesses is estimated at £320m per year and cost to government at approximately £380m per year by 2024.

A study led by Young Rail Professionals in partnership with Birmingham University found that only 8% of graduating students consider a career in rail. If we are to attract the best talent among apprentices and the top 10% of university graduates, we need to address this. 

We need to face it – we have an image problem.

Other industries are better at presenting a desirable image to potential recruits.  Now, consider rail’s digitised, automated and personalised future and its enduring value to society and the economy.   We should be able to sell our sector better! It’s down to each and every single one of us to market our industry.

A study we recently initiated to better understand how rail is viewed by potential talent, highlighted that the rail industry lacks outreach to inform young people, teachers and parents about a potential career in rail. Simply put, rail is not on their radar. The research also found that potential talent is least interested in stereotypical rail activities (such as becoming a train driver), while most interested in occupations that are not traditionally associated with rail (such as software development).

Finally, having myself worked in the rail sector for a fantastic 15 years, I find it tragic that the industry is perceived by the young as less modern, less exciting, less well-paid and less innovative than elsewhere.  The good news is that those who have been exposed to the rail sector, or have worked in rail, are much more likely to pursue a rail career.  In other words, once they get a taste for rail, they’re hooked. We need to capitalise on this.

So, what are we going to do about it?

While there are great individual examples of campaigns and activities designed to attract people to work in rail, these are not targeted, coordinated or consistent in message, and in many cases rely heavily on goodwill. The result is lack of impact and wasted resources and funds. Even when businesses get talented individuals interested in rail, we are unable as an industry to follow up and engage with them with relevant activities such as work experience, internship, and so forth. We need to act now as one rail industry!

We need to develop a rail campaign for recruiting potential talent. That campaign should be targeted locally at the appropriate geographical locations, at a diverse audience with skills that we need for our future, and could built on existing industry initiatives. The campaign should:

  • Publicise the type of information that we know has the highest impact on young job seekers such as inspirational stories and role models, industry future vision, social responsibility values, and so forth.
  • Exploit new channels to communicate this information including social media, video streams, dedicated recruitment apps and websites, creative recruitment games, contests and social experiments.   
  • Extend our outreach and ask young people directly what they need to know and want to hear about. This is the only way to truly understand our candidates’ motivations and show them how a career in rail can connect with their aspirations and values.   

In any case, for the campaign to work, it will need to be strengthened by activities across the industry which allow potential candidates to actively participate in life on the railway.  They need to experience rail and imagine themselves as part of the sector.

A coordinated activity across the sector should be established and follow a simple Attract, Engage and Retain framework. This activity should be supported by a centralised coordination activity across the sector to ensure maximum impact. Imagine a candidate who shows interest in rail via a school fair or a rail talk.  His or her details are then forwarded to the central coordinators; they will contact the candidate in the future when there is an opportunity to engage with him or her further.



This might be through an ‘open day’ at a train operating company where future job seekers meet rail professionals with many varied specialisations, ask them questions and shadow them in some of their work. It can be through interactive and experiential activities at a showroom for school students, such as driving a train in a simulator. Or it can be through ‘engineering competitions’ with a manufacturing company or a consultancy, where university undergraduates work in a team on rail related projects.  The end result is the same: candidates or future candidates can actually experience rail and thus are more informed and more motivated to consider a career in the rail industry.

This should not be just a vision. As an industry we need to turn this into a reality with a coordinated and structured approach to ‘Promotion and Attraction’. It is, after all, a key part of the Rail Sector Skills Delivery Plan.

Watch the space: I will be coming to you for support to make this a reality.

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