PAUL PAYNE of recruitment specialist One Way discusses some of the upcoming challenges with recruiting into the rail industry

The world is changing rapidly around us. In the last year or so we’ve left the EU, Leicester City won the Premier League title and the guy from The Apprentice USA is now somehow in charge of the free world. At the same time, a considerable amount of change has also taken in place in the rail sector with the rise of new technology, operating models and tighter financial constraints meaning that the industry is now a starkly different place to what it once was. And with more change on the way, what does this evolving environment mean for skills needs and hiring in the future?

There’s a shortage of available talent within the rail industry at the moment – below leadership level at least – which is particularly acute in areas like signalling. However, many of the issues related to a shortage of skills are being masked because of the flexible nature of much of the workforce, meaning that firms can rely on contractors to help get projects completed. It’s not necessarily a bad approach, after all it makes sense to utilise expertise when it’s available.

Upcoming projects
However, there are numerous upcoming projects on the horizon that threaten to really stretch existing teams and force employers to rely even more heavily on the contract workforce, which can be costly in the long term. Over the next few years the UK rail industry will have to manage the completion of Crossrail, the potential major development of HS2 along with the upgrading of Filton Bank and the Manchester Piccadilly expansion and many, many more. In addition, there’s the electrification of networks, including the Great Western rail line to contend with, although this project specifically has been delayed after a series of budgeting errors.

Outside of expansions or upgrades there’s also a series of tech led initiatives being launched in the coming months. These include Chiltern Rail’s ticketless scheme, ITSO’s smart ticketing, ‘Oyster-like’ service, and Silverrail’s Uber-inspired project to drive improved customer service, all of which threaten to shake up the existing status quo within the rail industry.

All of these projects and initiatives are shaping the future rail industry and mean that firms must shift their hiring strategies and reinvigorate their training programmes to align with the new nature of the sector. With change happening quicker than ever before, one attribute that has grown significantly in importance is flexibility and any professionals that can show they’re able to adapt to a rapidly changing role are likely to thrive.

In addition, tech skills and understanding are incredibly important in the modern rail industry, particularly if firms want to keep pace with the aforementioned new initiatives in the sector. Any major change in the future is likely to be tech led and it’s therefore critical that firms ensure they’re taking on professionals who can identify innovative solutions to issues and keep their employers at the forefront of the sector. However, the industry hasn’t historically been a location of choice for tech specialists so employers will need to readdress their hiring strategies and consider how they can tap into this market of experts who have different motivators and drivers than they may be used to.

Keeping the staff you have
Tech professionals look for more flexibility, autonomy, independence and the ability to take control of projects from their employment contracts than traditional rail employees, and firms will need to include these factors in their employer value propositions if they want to be able to recruit these specialists.

However, while it’s all very well recruiting tech specialists, it essentially means nothing if they find what they’ve been promised bears no relation to what the role is actually like, and with the cost of replacing a departing employee estimated at around 1.5 times their salary, you’ll want to ensure you can retain the staff you’re recruiting. This means offering opportunities like flexible working, or the chance to work on a series of different projects, are of paramount importance and you’ll need to at least consider factoring them in to roles if you want to be able to compete with top tech employers for the best skills in the market.

Rail recruitment is likely to prove challenging over the coming years as the sector adapts to the changing modern world even further. However it’s also likely to present numerous opportunities. As we all know, rail is a fantastic industry to work in with the chance to gain experience on innovative programmes that can make a major difference to millions of peoples’ lives and if employers can find ways to tap into new talent groups, like leading tech specialists, then they will be in a strong position to grow even further in 2017 and beyond.