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UK rail skills shortage puts major projects at risk

New research has highlighted a skills shortfall of up to 120,000 in the rail industry over the next 5 years due to an ageing workforce.

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 by City & Guilds and the National Skills Academy for Rail (NSAR) paints a stark picture for the future of the rail workforce.

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, people must be recruited now to equip them with the relevant skills and experience to meet future demand.

But, as highlighted by in the new report, 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; and 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, commented: “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.”

The full report is available here.

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