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Winning the hearts and minds of frontline colleagues to overcome the challenges facing the railway industry

Insight from Fiona Baggley, Director of Business Services of SWGR Group.

If the UK rail industry is to support the increase of passengers and freight using the network over the next few decades, it will need to win the hearts and minds of thousands of people and make the rail industry more attractive.

Make no mistake, the industry has already started making tracks and has undergone significant periods of change as it improves safety and digitalises processes in line with fast-paced technological advancements.

This change, which has brought the UK railway into the fore as one of the most compliant and assured networks in the world, has also made all our frontline colleagues some of the most experienced and knowledgeable people to ever service the infrastructure.

But that population is ageing, and those skills are leaving the industry. According to the NSAR Rail Workforce Survey 2023, between 35,000 and 40,000 colleagues will reach retirement age by the end of 2030 – that is a third of the entire workforce. At the other end of the spectrum, only 13.5 per cent of the workforce are currently aged 30 and under, and with other industries competing to employ, upskill and train the same pool of people, the rail industry will struggle to compete if it does not address societal challenges that face these demographics today.

Core to this is a level of consistency of work from major organisations to support the development of skills and training of new individuals. For example, the development of a machine controller can take more than 450 days from initial engagement into the industry, and many organisations are seeing colleagues move to other industries due to the inconsistency of work and devaluing of the skillset.

How to win hearts and minds – supporting people while they study

Simply put, one of the main factors addressing the recruitment challenge today is the attractiveness of the industry. Rail has often been seen as behind the technological curve, yet some of the advancements we have seen in the industry have contributed towards a much safer railway than ever before. But we need to shift that perception to those outside of the industry.

Over the last few years, SWGR has been working shoulder to shoulder with partner colleges providing engineering qualifications to provide students with real-life working opportunities and development of competencies and skills to kickstart a career in rail.

Alongside the rail-specific training provided by our training provider, Global Train, we have given these students the opportunity to work on a live railway environment. We have welcomed more than 100 students to complete this across the UK in our most recent work for this progressive initiative, and many we have recruited throughout the years have continued their careers in rail alongside their studies. This is so important in demonstrating to young people how rewarding work on the railways can truly be.

Supported by our experienced frontline colleagues, we can impart knowledge and multi-skill our new colleagues and bridge the skills gap.

How to win hearts and minds – addressing societal challenges

Another societal challenge that needs addressing is health. One of the ONS metrics to measure social deprivation is health, and working in a safety critical environment, the health and mental wellbeing of our colleagues is absolutely essential if we are to succeed.

Part of that work is through increasing access to health and mental wellbeing support, which is why, over the last few years, our Mobile Health, Safety and Wellbeing Units have been on frontlines across the UK, and supported more than 5,500 colleagues, whether they work for SWGR or not, with free health and mental wellbeing checks. We are assured that, by doing this, we have mitigated and prevented many potential incidents from these checks. The industry can see the difference these checks make, and our units are being adopted by many major organisations today.

The rail industry has a way to go to bridging the skills gap, but if we, as organisations working on the frontline, can support our colleagues better by engaging with them at a younger age, and support them with their challenges, we can truly make a difference and bring more people into what we know is a fantastic career.

We’re proud to play our part in this drive.

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