Maintaining railway skills across the industry

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17 November 2016

Welding steel vs welding aluminium. How different can it be? Very, it turns out. Although not completely distinct from one another, aluminium and steel have different melting points, they require different pre-treatment and different shielding gases are used to ensure the quality of the weld. Aluminium can be particularly tricky. A momentary distraction could leave a hole bigger than the one the welder started with.

The intricacies of welding illustrate the wider challenge of retaining traditional skills. A proliferation of orders for new trains in the last few years will pull the average age of the UK’s rolling stock fleet down and has given manufacturers plenty of opportunity to strengthen the workforce. The chance to build exciting new fleets of trains will appeal to apprentices and graduates, but rolling stock engineering is about more than just new trains.

Backing up the introduction of new fleets are a host of upgrade programmes that require engineers with a varied set of skills. In general, modern trains in the UK are built around aluminium body shells. The industry will need new technicians who understand modern manufacturing methods and technology, but engineers with knowledge of older fleets and traditional crafts will be in equally short supply.

Says Chris Jones, the newly appointed head of Ford & Stanley’s Talentwise division, “The public will potentially see a vision of a new train, an artistic impression of a new train, which is absolutely fantastic. Often they don’t notice that there’s a new passenger information system on the rolling stock or maybe they don’t come across driver advisory systems that are being installed.”

He went on, “Those programmes happen in the background as part of a franchise agreement… They often will need engineers and technicians to carry out that work and they’re the type of people we’re supplying. We’re looking to ensure we’ve got a good quality, informed workforce that can move from customer to customer to carry out those pieces of work.”


Training and tooling

Ford & Stanley announced the creation of its Talentwise service, which focuses on the provision of a blue and grey-collar workforce for the rail sector, in 2015. Since its launch, Talentwise has sought to deviate from a typical recruitment service by providing complementary workwear and tooling for employees and access to training, which it delivers in partnership with Qualitrain.

Within the business there is a belief that, over the next five years, Talentwise will play an important role in strengthening the skills base of rolling stock technicians.

“It is the responsibility of train operators to deliver a first class level of service to the public and to keep their rolling stock in tip top shape,” adds Chris. “So there’s a constant need for maintenance programmes to ensure the right skill sets are available.”


Early engagement

Chris has worked in recruitment for 27 years and he has specialised in recruiting for the rail industry since 2001. Like so many in the industry, Chris has a strong family connection to the railway. His grandfather was a train driver - most notably piloting Royal Scot. His uncle was also a train driver and his mum worked for British Rail.

Reflecting on how things have evolved since he first started, Chris said he feels the industry is under pressure and there needs to be early engagement with recruitment companies to predict labour requirements; even for projects a number of months or years down the line.

Says Chris, “We need to ensure we’re sharing industry knowledge which stretches the available scarce skills and puts pressure on the industry’s workforce. Early engagement will help with resource planning.”

That said, there will always be a need for flexibility. “We can react to requirements at short notice, clearly. That’s part and parcel of being a relatively light-footed recruitment business. But to provide the full service, we advocate it’s best to have early engagement, good planning.”


Diverse workforce

Ford & Stanley is working with colleges and is looking at resettlement opportunities to find engineers and technicians with transferable skills that could be applied in a train depot or workshop. In the 15 years he’s worked in the rail industry, Chris has seen changes which have improved the competitiveness of rail. Longer franchises promote greater stability. “That’s a better drum to beat for the sector,” says Chris.

Much like the distracted welder, the industry could find it has a much bigger problem if it doesn’t act now to create an engineering workforce with a diverse range of knowledge and experience. Chris and his team are at the forefront, addressing the issue one placement at a time.

Says Chris, “I am a great believer that a team working effectively together will achieve greater success. Collectively, we will be responsible for delivering a first class service to our clients and the candidates we represent.”


Article as recently featured in the RailStaff magazine, dated November 2016.

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