Featured in the latest issue of Rail Technology Magazine, Elaine Clark, manager of Rail Forum East Midlands (RFEM), explains how the region is already taking innovative action to tackle the national skills shortage.

The skills shortages in the rail industry have been well documented for some time. The National Skills Academy for Rail (NSAR) has undertaken a significant amount of high-quality analysis work to quantify the engineering shortages both by type of occupation and by skills level. The skills challenge features in the work of the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) and in the Rail Supply Group’s (RSG’s) industrial strategy. A Transport Infrastructure Skills Strategy has been developed; launched at the beginning of last year, this commits the industry to creating 20,000 apprenticeships by 2020. The strategy also calls for collective and sustained action to create a more diverse workforce, setting an ambition that 20% of new entrants to engineering and technical apprenticeships be female by the same date.

To come anywhere close to achieving these numbers means taking concerted action now. But therein lies the real challenge as the above organisations have limited resources to really get to grips with delivery on a national scale – and that’s where the RFEM is having an impact.

RFEM represents over 150 rail organisations – from infrastructure to rolling stock and from manufacturing to technology services. Members include multinational corporations through to small family-owned businesses. Our strategy, launched last September, sets out four key priority areas where we will support our members. One of these is to Facilitate Local Delivery of National (and Regional) Strategy. Working closely with RSG and NSAR, we are implementing specific actions locally for the benefit of our members and in so doing we are making inroads into delivering the national strategy – not just on skills, but also with our work on innovation and business growth.

The focus of this article is, however, skills – so what are we doing? We have two areas of focus that link back to the national strategy and the recently launched skills delivery plan:

Encouraging more people to take up a career in rail. This work includes taking a co-ordinated approach to education outreach in the East Midlands and working with the Career Transition Partnership (CTP) to offer a co-ordinated approach to working with armed forces leavers
Driving up the number of apprenticeships in rail, including supporting companies to either make the best use of their apprenticeship levy payments or, for non-levy payers, to navigate the new funding arrangements
A great example of this industry collaboration was a Careers in Rail event for armed forces leavers held in October last year. Working in partnership with CTP, RFEM brought together 20 companies representing all facets of the industry to meet and network with well over 100 service men and women. Whilst the day included an overview presentation to set the scene about the range of opportunities in the industry, the majority of time was given over to individuals being able to talk to companies about current and potential future vacancies. Feedback from employers and individuals was resoundingly positive and we know some people secured immediate full-time jobs as a result.

A second example is the establishment of a Rail Employment and Skills Academy with Derby College. The academy allows employers to work with the college to advise on the content of the curriculum, develop facilities, offer work placements and workplace visits and set projects. A number of our members, large and small, have come together to create the academy including Angel Trains, Atkins, Bombardier, Carillion, Collis Engineering, CoMech Metrology, Datum Composites, East Midlands Trains, Elite KL, ESG Rail, ISS Labour, Lindhurst Engineering, Loram UK, Porterbrook, Resonate and SNC-Lavalin.

The academy will focus on both apprentices and full-time students who may progress onto an apprenticeship or higher education, and the intention is that all the full-time students will be ‘sponsored’ in some way by an employer. We also want our academy to provide opportunities for students from across a range of disciplines, not just engineering or construction. So we plan to include students studying a wide variety of subjects, such as business and management, commercial, marketing, digital technology and even catering.

These are just two examples of our practical actions. As part of our support to RSG, we are keen to share what we are doing so that if other organisations or regions want to learn from our experiences, they can. Equally, we are interested to learn from activities in other regions.

So, the strategies are written and the plans are developed. Now is the time for action, and RFEM will continue to focus on those actions that will benefit our members the most – developing the skills that our employers need to succeed and grow and that start to deliver on those tough targets.