Why graduates should take advantage of the rail industry’s skills gap


As train travel increases, so does the need for talented graduates to join the sector. This is why it’s a great career option
Trains on a railway track
Trains on a railway track

We really need to up our game collectively and make the case for graduate careers in rail. Photograph: WSP WSP/PR

The UK is currently seeing unprecedented public investment in rail with huge projects set to transform our aging network for the future. Yet as the workload increases the industry is facing a shortage of skilled workers to deliver on the investment.

Travel on our rail network is set to increase. Rail travel currently accounts for 8% of all trips in the UK but this is expected to rise steadily in coming years. Journeys have already increased by 60% since 1995, the result of many more people starting to travel by train, particularly for business. And, to accommodate the extra journeys, timetabled train kilometres have increased every year for a decade.

To meet this demand, the Government has committed £38bn over the next five years in an ambitious programme aimed at ensuring we have the world class infrastructure we need to compete at a global level. The London rail project, Crossrail, is the largest infrastructure project in Europe. When it opens in 2018, it will provide trains for an estimated 200 million people to travel to and around London annually, increasing London’s rail capacity by 10%. High Speed 2, the ambitious plan to extend high speed rail from London to the north, will bring with it better connections and faster travel times.

Julie Carrier, UK head of rail at consultancy WSP, which has a large rail team working on projects including Crossrail and HS2, says there couldn’t be a more exciting time to work in rail.

“We are currently seeing a rail renaissance,” she says. “HS2 is a hugely exciting project that has the potential to be a game changer for the UK; it’s not just about high speed train travel, but connectivity, agglomeration and bringing opportunities outside of London. However, to fully grasp all the benefits that HS2 and other projects will bring us we must have a fully skilled workforce ready to deliver it.”

In fact the engineering industry in general is facing a skills gap in the future. It’s estimated that the UK will need 100,000 engineering graduates every year until 2020 just to maintain the current employment levels. One of the biggest problems is the lack of diversity – only 8.7% of engineers in the UK are female. By comparison, the rail workforce is made up of around 84,500 engineers and only 4.4% are female. According to a recent report by the National Skills Academy for Railway Engineering (NSARE), we will need between 1,600 and 2,000 new people in the next five years in signalling and telecommunications, with over 30% of these people being at technician level or above. Around 1,000 engineers will be needed for electrification and plant in the next few years, which is equivalent to 30% of the current workforce.

Julie says the skills shortage is very apparent in the rail industry and an issue that large companies like WSP are proactively tackling. “One of the biggest problems we have as an industry is our image. People typically think that rail engineers spend their time in muddy boots and hard hats, but it’s just not the case anymore. My role is very much a professional services role, liaising with clients, going to meetings with project teams across many different companies, travelling around our regional offices visiting members of my wider team. I do regularly visit railway stations, but more often that’s because I’m going somewhere, not working on them!”

WSP’s UK head of recruitment, Carol White, agrees. “We do struggle to explain that even though we do a lot of engineering work, we are a consultancy working up practical and innovative solutions to problems, not engineers on the ground. There needs to be better education on what an engineering, geography, planning or environmental science degree can lead to – we have many different roles across many different fields, all of which might get involved in rail at some stage whether it be at the planning and design stage or in project management. There is a huge range of different skills needed in the rail industry, so graduates of any science based degree should consider whether there is something for them.”

There are a number of initiatives in the industry to grow the skills base, one of which is the new High Speed Rail academy. HS2 is predicted to create around 400,000 jobs when it starts construction in 2017, and to safeguard its delivery, the Government announced the creation of the first new further education college in 20 years in January. Four areas have been shortlisted to house the new college which will train up the next generation of engineers – Birmingham, Derby, Doncaster and Manchester.

But until these engineers come into the industry, it’s imperative that companies like WSP attract in as many graduates and apprentices as possible. Julie says many graduates with degrees that could apply to the rail industry look elsewhere for jobs. “We really need to up our game collectively and make the case for rail. For a young person there are so many benefits and exciting things to get involved in – the advancement in smart technologies and how they are shaping the wider transport industry, the opportunity to be involved in the biggest construction projects in the UK and the chance to travel the world because this is ultimately a global industry. What other industry can offer all this and more?”


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