UK rail industry faces critical skills shortage by 2025, says new report

New report finds potential rail industry skills shortfall on the horizon, with up to 120,000 additional people required over the next 5-10 years.

New research by City & Guilds and the National Skills Academy for Rail (NSAR) has painted a stark picture for the future of the rail workforce, with skill shortages set to escalate significantly as up to 120,000 additional people will be required in the sector over the next five to ten years.

With major rail infrastructure projects due to be announced this week as part of the long anticipated National Infrastructure Strategy, the Back on Track report reveals that there is potential for these to create a new lease of life for the UK economy through new jobs and economic growth.

However, the report says that serious systemic issues in the industry’s talent and skills pipeline have created a shortage of trained and talented employees just when the industry needs them most. 

The research finds that the rail sector is set to lose huge numbers of skilled workers over the next few years. With 28% of workers in the industry aged over 50, this means some 15,000 workers could be due to retire by 2025. Meanwhile, Brexit is set to exacerbate this issue, potentially reducing access to overseas workers. From 2016 to 2018, the proportion of EU workers in the rail sector dropped from 17% to 15% – and this declining trend is expected to continue.

As a result of this talent and skills shortfall coinciding with new rail projects that will heighten the demand for skills, between 7,000 and 12,000 additional people will be required every year by the industry over the next five to ten years – up to 120,000 people in total. And with modelling showing peak demand around 2025, the report says that people must be recruited now to equip them with the relevant skills and experience to meet future demand.

But the report highlights a lack of upskilling opportunities and perceived reputational problems mean that the industry continues to struggle to attract and train candidates, with just a third (32%) of respondents saying they would consider a career in the rail sector. This is particularly acute amongst women, young adults and people from BAME backgrounds:

  • Just 16% of the current rail workforce is female and only 24% of women would consider a career in rail, compared to 41% of men;
  • 26% of 18-24-year olds say they would consider a career in rail, compared to 39% of 35-44-year olds;
  • 27% of BAME people would consider working in rail, compared to 32% of white people.

Martin Hottass, managing director – technical training at City & Guilds Group, said: “The UK rail industry is on the cusp of leading a once-in-a-generation infrastructure revolution, with the potential to create thousands of high quality jobs across the country at a time when they are needed most. However, the dual blow of Brexit and a retirement cliff edge, in addition to systemic issues around growing and retaining skills, means unless government, employers and industries work together to urgently addresses these issues, they risk scuppering this golden opportunity. It’s clear that greater collaboration will be key to increasing awareness of opportunities in the sector, and ensuring that rail projects are committed to creating lifelong learning opportunities.“

Neil Robertson, CEO at the National Skills Academy for Rail, said: “The rail industry’s lack of diversity and perception by younger people, are well known, but less well understood – and while many people in the industry are already working to recruit and upskill a more diverse workforce, it’s by shedding a light on these issues that we can understand the solutions that will truly make an impact. Now, as we look to invest in new talent in to fill future skills gaps in the rail industry, it’s also clear that we can use this opportunity improve social mobility across the UK. 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.”

City & Guilds and NSAR are calling on the rail sector and government to collaborate and take a joined-up approach to urgently gear up the industry’s skills and talent pipelines. The seven key recommendations outlined in the report are:

  1. Build lifelong learning commitments into project specifications for national rail projects - starting with apprenticeships;
  2. Transform the rail industry into a career destination, especially for young people;
  3. Develop strong career paths to attract and retain talent and maximise productivity;
  4. Make mid-career entry to the industry and skills-transfer more frictionless;
  5. Build greater participation at a local / regional level;
  6. Government and relevant partners should consider a perception and awareness raising campaign;
  7. Utilise the green agenda to attract a new generation of people to the industry.

Click here to read the full report, Back on Track: Gearing up to meet the increased demand for talent in the rail industry.

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