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Minding the skills gap: careers in rail

The warning ‘mind the gap’ is given every day on Britain’s railways. It is too great an irony to resist that the largest gap is not, in fact, between the train and the bend on platform two at London Victoria Station, but that one existing between the skills required to bring our rail transport systems into the 21st century and those currently at the industry’s disposal.

Each day the gap in question gets a little wider. A high rate of retirement from the workforce, in what is perceived as a comparatively low-tech sphere, has not been balanced with a replenishment of younger engineering stock; engineers with skills and knowledge are now needed to enable the industry to embrace its hi-tech future. This is one based squarely on the application of new technology, such as in-cab signalling and fly-by-wire control systems; it also involves a continued investment in line electrification, the proposed extension of the high-speed network and the challenge of reducing energy consumption and carbon footprint.


There are none more mindful of the gap than Steve White, services director at Siemens, who is responsible for maintaining and supporting the Siemens rolling stock, which includes some of the most technologically advanced trains on the UK network. ‘There are 13,500 people in the UK who earn their living by looking after rolling stock. The industry estimates there will be a gap of 4,500 in the next five years.’

While the high rate of retirement was causing problems, the gap was also being driven by growth in investment in rolling stock and new technology. ‘There is a skills gap coming with the introduction of fly-by-wire technology and the European Rail Traffic Management System [ERTMS],’ he said.

In 2010, the first of a new fleet of 38 Siemens trains, the Class 380, went into operation as part of a £450m project to improve services in the west of Scotland. The project also involved the expansion of ScotRail’s Shields depot in Glasgow, creating 130 new jobs.

Weight-saving features make the fleet efficient to operate, and the Class 380 also monitors its own energy use and has regenerative braking that can return energy to the power system. Such advances, said White, including the fly-by-wire controls, which means the train ‘runs off an ethernet backbone’, makes conventional maintenance skills and experience of dealing with manual systems less relevant.

‘We still need good technicians, diligent people who can undertake the routine maintenance work, but then also hi-tech engineers who are capable of things such as advanced fault finding and diagnostics. So within that group are systems engineers and production support engineers.’

Around the next bend in the line are yet more changes, which will affect many aspects of the rail industry. This is the planned introduction of ERTMS in the UK. ERTMS is a suite of systems designed to replace traditional line-side signals with in-cab signalling, improve operating safety and eventually enable a radio-based train-control system capable of managing the movements of all trains on the network.


One of ScotRail’s new Siemens class 380 trains

Trials of parts of the system have already been carried out in the UK and the first roll-out is due to begin on the Great Western main line from Paddington to Bristol in 2016.
Such an ambitious system will, however, require a workforce of appropriately skilled engineers. To address this and other challenges, the National Skills Academy for Railway Engineering (NSARE), in collaboration with Siemens, announced last month the launch of a rail training academy, specialising in traction and rolling-stock skills. The academy will be sited at the Siemens service headquarters in Northampton and open its doors to the first students in Spring 2015. It will offer 20,000 man days of training per year.

Elaine Clark, head of training and skills at the NSARE, said the academy would play a critical role in meeting future needs by bringing resources from across the industry to bear on the task of building a new, highly skilled workforce of railway engineers. ‘It will operate as the “hub” in a hub-and-spoke model linking other manufacturers facilities, colleges, and other training and education institutions,’ she said.

According to research carried out by the NSARE last year, a total of 10,000 new recruits will be needed in the next five years. Clark said there was an immediate need for skills across the board, but specifically overhead line design and construction as more of the network was electrified, as well as signal engineering skills. ‘One of the key issues is employers are looking for people with experience and this is proving very difficult.’

However, the introduction of ERTMS, will demand completely new skills, she said. ‘This will require a lot of training, and a lot more “systems” engineers than we have at present. This is a long-term, 30-year project.’

Clark added that higher skill levels would also be necessary to take advantage of techniques pioneered in other sectors such as remote condition monitoring, and ‘reliability-centred maintenance’, a method developed in the aviation industry to establish safe minimum levels of maintenance. ‘It’s probably fair to say the railway is just catching up with some of the techniques that other capital-intensive industries such as aero and energy have been deploying for some time. There is a growing trend to see the railway as a whole system rather than individual “bits”.’

Clark’s view was echoed by Russell Otter, director of Morson International, a recruitment agency that specialises in supplying the rail sector. He said that out on the track the skills shortage
was already ‘extreme’. This was most notable in areas such as overhead line electrification, signalling, permanent way (or track) and power systems. As such, many employers looked to hire the ‘finished article’ for immediate impact on their projects, rather than invest in training the next generation.

‘We are noticing an increased need for multi-skilled labour, clients merging roles that were previously separate, essentially a role defined by a quantity of competencies rather than a title, which obviously reduces labour requirements and costs, but significantly increases training and certification requirements.’

He said his clients were also becoming more open to candidates with skills from ‘multi-disciplinary engineering environments such as automotive, aerospace, marine or construction’.

However, Otter said it was good to see that some companies were reinvesting in training and apprenticeships, but added: ‘There is a gap to fill in the time taken to develop an individual from a
raw recruit to the finished article or a qualified engineer.’

Readers' comments (8)

  • Education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics needs to be strengthened. Our colleges and universities are not graduating enough students with strong science degrees, computer science or otherwise. Graduates with the right kinds of backgrounds for data scientist – computer science, statistics, machine learning – are coming out of the universities, but they are not coming out in sufficient numbers. As a result, firms are struggling to hire full-time or contract staff for IT and engineering positions. In working with IT staffing agencies, I know it's important to know their true professional goals. Help them achieve their growth goals and help them establish a career growth path.
    Than Nguyen

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  • I have nearly finished an HND course and I am finding it really difficult to find a job because all of the jobs that would have been open to me before are either filled by ‘Skills initiative’ type schemes or you need a full degree.
    I am amazed that I have nearly completed the HND as there was basically no learning support and the ‘teaching’ element consisted of the teachers standing at the front of the class and either saying (and I’m quoting at this point); ‘I’ve given you the notes what more do you want!?’ and ‘So…….what don’t you know?’.
    When we raised concerns about the quality of the teaching and the levels of the support available to us the head of the course effectively told us to piss off and the head of the college told us that the teaching staff ‘weren’t there to teach us’.
    This leads me to the conclusion that colleges are wilfully misusing government funding because there is no come back for them.

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  • In response to the first comment - The way to get the numbers of students studying the STEM Subjects at University that the Goverment identifies as essential for the economy is by the Government funding the course fees at colleges producing good graduates and by funding the undergraduates studying these vital subjects with support grants.

    In response to the second comment - Bad Practice has existed at colleges since at least the early 1970's when I was at University when the 'numbers game' was played at the expense of students in some universities (My University led by the Applied Science Faculty rejected it). The 'Numbers Game' was immoral and comprised colleges taking students who wouldnt get a degree to take the money for them from the students LEA - The students were usually failed or left the courses as unable to cope.

    Technical Colleges offering HNC/HND courses went down hill in the 1990's when colleges went to booking teachers by the hour taught and not a full wage the result being breadline wages unless retired or having other jobs - Result being poor quality disinterested teachers. I was recently told of a Fab and Weld teacher on £16,500 a year!!!!!!

    There has always been a significant variation in teaching quality in universities between courses in different institutions and this can be assessed before applying for a course - Employers know the good and bad departments and it affects employability. This has never been acceptable BUT now students pay large teaching fees institutions offereing poor quality teaching and inadequate courses can expect to be sued by students and should be to warn others of the teaching quality of the organisation.

    I was outraged by the comments of the previous contributor on several levels:-

    Firstly because the student concerned seems to have received both poor career advice on qualifications needed OR college to study at - Employers know the quality of the college courses in their area and will make employment decisions accordingly.

    Secondly the class room attitude of the teachers and attitudes of the head of course and head of college, if accurately reported, strike me those of a college I would not send anyone to and which should be in special measures if a state school. It sounds like a need for such conversations to be recorded to be put on record and used to get an investigation started.

    If the college is and LEA college through the LEA with copies to the local councillors and local MP and even local press if necessary to ensure properly investigated.

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  • Whenever there is an open position many years of experience in the rail industry are required. How do they want to get new blood with this inbreeding?

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  • There are thousands of engineers that do not have job. How can they expect experienced, professional and ready made railway engineers? Please take the engineers and train them according to the requirements.

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  • Anonymous All my education years in the UK from aged 4 to 25 have involved learning things myself with the information provided by the teacher in the classroom and it's up to the individual whether one takes an interest in learning and getting good results in the exams. However I do wonder when students are paying for their education in the 'modern age' and the same teaching practices are used but they could still fail or have bad results and still pay for the course.

    The secret with studying is to do work at home (homework) to understand it all, combined with working in a study group in school/college/'s Darwinism in UK education - survival of the fittest.

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  • @Vinod k Rajan I have noticed the same issues for many years, it's a skills market these days where agencies get paid money for finding the people with the exact skills be it from the UK or anywhere else. So after all the hard studying work and gaining experience they get cash for putting you forward as a candidate or have the power to accept or reject with the employer out of the loop.

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  • Experience isn't 'inbreeding' - the industry needs to balance the experience of established engineers who want to develop future generations with young people who want to engage with the industry and learn. Ensuring effective transfer of skills and learning is a management issue - another area where the deficiencies and shortcomings of both industry and education in this country are apparent.

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