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Is the UK Rail industry facing a critical skills shortage?

Is there a talent shortage in the rail industry? According to the “Back on Track” report published by the National Skills Academy for Rail and City & Guilds, the UK rail industry could face a critical skills shortage by 2025.

While the expectation is that the National Infrastructure Survey will see some major rail projects announced over the coming weeks, it seems that a period of increased demand will collide unhappy with the sector’s talent shortage, with the report warning of “serious systemic issues in the industry’s talent and skills pipeline”.

The report, which includes findings from research undertaken by YouGov and data from NSAR, states that 28% of workers in the industry aged over 50 (c. 15,000 people) could be due to retire by 2025. With the UK’s formal exit from the EU on January 1st looming, the resource shortage will only be exacerbated by the loss of a significant number of skilled workers from overseas. The research has found that Brexit has already impacted on the number of skilled workers, with the proportion of EU workers in the rail sector dropping from 17% to 15% between 2016 and 2018.

Over the next 5-10 years, it is projected that 7,000-12,000 additional workers will be needed per year to keep up with demand. With a peak expected in 2025, talent needs to be sourced and trained now, to ensure they have the relevant skill set for when that time comes.

The report also highlights some striking statistics about the diversity of the rail industry’s workforce. With just 16% being female, questions are raised as to why the sector struggles to attract candidates from a range of backgrounds – some cite a perceived lack of opportunities to upskill, or reputational problems including unsociable working hours and regular travel away from home. Just 32% of overall respondents said they would consider a career in rail, with stark differences between groups:

  • 24% of women would consider a career in rail, compared to 41% of men

  • 26% of respondents aged 18-24 would consider a career in rail, compared to 39% of those aged 35-44

  • 27% of people from BAME backgrounds would consider working in rail, compared to 32% of white people

The UK’s rail industry might not be the only one facing a skills deficit over the coming years. With the newly-elected Biden administration promising to expand America’s rail network to make it the “cleanest, safest, and fastest rail system in the world” and advocating a “second great railroad revolution”, it begs the question of where the talent required to support such improvements will come from.

So how do we approach this shortfall? Martin Hottass, Managing Director of Technical Training at City & Guilds Group, states in the report that “Unless government, employers and industries work together to urgently address these issues, they risk scuppering this golden opportunity”.

However, it’s not all bad news – this is an an opportunity for the industry to improve social mobility on a global scale. NSAR CEO Neil Robertson said: “By hiring people from different backgrounds and regions and providing them with quality skills and career progression, we can ensure that these infrastructure projects not only create jobs, but also promote positive socioeconomic change.”

If your business would benefit from a deeper understanding of the talent that is available, Venari Partners have extensive experience in industry mapping projects across the Travel, Transport and Logistics (TTL) sector.


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