This article, by Alistair Gordon – Keolis UK CEO, was originally published in Rail Professional


In the face of a significant skills shortage across the industry, transport operators must work harder to attract the best talent; Transport for Wales show how it’s done.


The rail industry is currently going through one of the biggest periods of change since the privatisation of the railways in the 1990s. The ongoing Williams Review is set to fundamentally alter the way our networks operate, with the expectation that it will deliver fares reform, improve reliability and accessibility, but most significantly the possible end to the current franchise model.

We are also seeing substantial investment in key projects such as HS2, Northern Powerhouse Rail and Crossrail, all progressing in response to increasing passenger demand for better performance and capacity across the National rail network. All of this, of course, spells greater opportunities for careers in the sector, and to be a part of the next generation in UK rail.

And yet, at such a pivotal time, the rail sector and engineering industry more generally are facing a critical skills shortage. Recent figures from the Strategic Transport Apprenticeship Taskforce reveal that Britain needs 203,000 new engineers every year in order to meet demand, but there is a current shortfall of 49,000 a year. The rail industry faces pressure to attract new talent, with an aging workforce that sees one in five of its engineers currently aged over 55.

So, what needs to be done to help attract the next generation of talent? And how can the industry be mobilised to take better advantage of the opportunities ahead?


Encourage and inspire

The need to encourage and inspire more young people to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects at schools and universities has always been a key industry objective. Beyond the more academic routes, industry apprenticeships also need to be supported with positive communication and promotion. The breadth of career paths and opportunities available within the rail industry is extensive and diverse, but this is still not communicated strongly or effectively enough, leading to low uptake. As a result, many young students will fail to consider careers in rail as an option for them at the time when they are making the first key decisions about their future.

Unfortunately, this rings especially true when we look at the number of women that opt to pursue a career in rail. Of the 85,000 people currently working in the sector, just 14,000 are female, according to research from Samuel Knight International. This can only mean that there is a wealth of talent and skill that is immediately bypassing the industry and suggests that more needs to be done to shift perceptions.

We work in an exciting and forward-thinking sector that offers great opportunities for all, and this is a message that Transport for Wales (TfW) has been supporting in its approach to cultivating the next generation of talent. Recently it announced a commitment to work with more than 450 apprentices, graduates and interns during the 15-year Wales & Borders franchise, setting a best in class model for operators. They offer experience for young people in key areas such as fleet, infrastructure projects and train planning, helping to ensure that we replenish the numbers of skilled workers in the sector.

And this commitment is already bearing fruit from working with local universities and colleges to provide opportunities to dozens of budding specialists from all backgrounds. Indeed, having successfully completed his fleet apprenticeship, TfW already has one of its graduate engineering apprentices starting a BSC degree in Engineering.

Schemes like these not only help develop young people’s careers, but also ensure the next generation plays an important role in improving and developing the rail industry. It’s a programme of mutual benefit and it has been exciting to see it deliver so quickly.


Embracing Technology

While growing the talent pool is paramount, the impact of technology is undeniably transforming the skill needs of the transport industry too, and it is imperative that training and development evolves to keep pace with the rate of change.

Engineering UK estimates that an additional 7,200 engineering and technical workers are needed to deliver existing high-speed rail projects alone, with projects such as HS2 not only requiring more ‘traditional’ engineering skills, but technical capabilities and knowledge of areas such as big data, automation, sustainability and electrification.

These new technologies are an enabler for improving products and services to deliver the best possible passenger experience, so upskilling the workforce to feel comfortable in using new technology is an increasingly important part of training and development.

This is something that we at Keolis take great pride in, ensuring that we match our ambition to innovate and improve the customer experience with the right minds, skills and technologies.

However, as an industry we must never assume that we already have all the answers – we must ensure the door remains open to any ambitious entrepreneurs or local businesses with good ideas that will help drive innovation and find new solutions to key challenges.

Again, Transport for Wales is demonstrating great leadership in tackling this head-on with the launch of ‘Lab’, a programme supported by Alt Labs and designed to encourage a culture of innovative problem solving. This 12-week accelerator programme invites individuals or groups with innovative solutions to transport issues to be mentored by a range of industry experts, as well as developing prototypes and demos to be pitched Dragon’s Den-style to key stakeholders and decision makers from across TfW Rail.

The individual or team with the winning idea is awarded a contract to fully develop their new solution before being potentially rolled out across the Wales & Borders rail network, operated by KeolisAmey.

The TfW Lab is helping to showcase the best of Welsh start-up talent, as well as finding solutions to improve key aspects of the physical and digital passenger experience. But the benefits of this programme will be felt by passengers much further afield than Wales. By nurturing the next generation of talent, the wider rail industry will reap the benefits of these new ideas and skills, helping to safeguard the future success of our network.

We work in an industry which often talks about the need for new skills, perspective and talent and the opportunities are there for the industry itself to lead on driving this. I’m very proud to see this already happening in Wales.