You can’t be what you can’t see…

By Rob Forde

Director of Strategy and Skills – Global Centre of Rail Excellence

I’m one of those people that believes passionately that rail is one of the most interesting, vibrant and creative industries in which to start and build a career.

In the nearly two decades I’ve spent in the industry, I’ve been fortunate to work on some fascinating projects; collaborate with some outrageously talented people and through building a stronger rail network make, what I feel, is a positive contribution to our community and our economy.

Importantly, I’ve always found rail to be a place with opportunities and funding support to upskill and grow as a professional. I’ve found that once you’ve joined the ranks, the laddering within the industry in terms of skills training and development is strong. As someone from a working class background I’ve never found rail to put a cap or a ceiling on how far I can go.

The central challenge is that we aren’t attracting the range and numbers of people choosing to build a future in the industry.

I recently took part in an event for the National Skills Academy for Rail (NSAR). The event marked the publication of their annual workforce survey. The results were sobering. The average age of our workforce is now 45 – and rising each year. The proportion of our workforce aged under 30 is now only 10%.

We need to invest in a younger workforce not just to combat the number of people retiring or increasing demand but, importantly, in order to bring new ideas and new challenge to some of our outdated thinking. We need a younger cohort, adept at using new technology, to help the industry move at the pace of modern, digital developments. As well as attracting new people into careers in rail we also need to upskill and, importantly, reskill our current workforce. That means ensuring we have the right courses and facilities to enable good-quality training.

But in terms of attracting a new generation into rail its always important to remember the old line, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see‘. Its going to be hard to tackle the diversity challenge in rail when less than 16% of our workforce is female and 87% of the workforce is white. I want my son and my daughter to see rail as a viable and exciting career path and part of that will be to ensure they see in rail a modern and diverse industry.

To improve the performance of the railway system we need to attract and develop a more diverse workforce, and that’s not just my view. Opinion research shows the more diverse a team the better the performance. This includes social diversity and supporting the development of people from areas with less economic opportunities.

The Global Centre of Rail Excellence team on a recent visit to a local primary school

In particular, rail has a responsibility to think about how it does that in parts of the UK where we need to create new economic opportunities – which is one of the drivers of our Global Centre of Rail Excellence (GCRE) project in South Wales. The GCRE skills strategy we are currently developing is grounded on an ambition to help tackle some of these challenges in our own team. Its built on several elements.

Critical to our approach will be to build a ‘routes into rail’ pipeline to train the local workforce. This is key to ensure we have skilled people not only to work on site, but to ensure we are giving back to the local economy and showing the value of our project for the local area.

This is important for us because Neath Port Talbot, one of our home local authorities, has the highest level of economic inactivity in Wales and one of the highest in the UK. Many people in the local community worked in heavy industry and have been hit hard by de-industrialisation and the loss of manufacturing jobs from South Wales. Many in the local population already have engineering or related skills, but need all-age pathways in order to translate those capabilities into the rail industry.

At GCRE we are creating well paid and skilled jobs and we want – we need – people from local communities to fill these roles. Apprenticeships, degree apprenticeships and routes for local teenagers into HNDs in STEM subjects will be a key part of our plan

We want to develop a long term skills pipeline for roles in rail and see a growth in rail jobs in the local area as the GCRE site itself grows. We will also see demand grow across specialist technical skills such as ETCS and electrification, especially if some of the HS2 saving is now being spent on electrifying the North Wales line.

To this end we are working with local primary and secondary near to our site to promote STEM and careers in rail. For some of the young people that live in the communities around GCRE, neither parent is in work – so the visibility of our facility and the role it can play in the lives of young people from the very earliest ages is absolutely critical. Our first initiative has now started working with Primary Engineer programme to promote STEM in primary schools local to the GCRE site.

A training day for teachers in schools taking part in the Global Centre of Rail Excellence ‘Primary Engineer’ programme

We will also be developing new industry skills capability. GCRE will offer the rail industry a location to develop, test, showcase and train on a live railway site with cutting edge new technology. GCRE won’t just be a railway, it will be a live laboratory and state-of-the-art campus facility to train at.

Importantly we have room to grow on our site. At 700-hectares, GCRE will be the same size as Gibraltar, or Disneyland Paris. I like the comparison to Disneyland as I imagine GCRE as a playground for railway engineers, and what do children do at playgrounds other than play? They learn!

On our playground we will have world class railway technology, providing access to high end technical assets for training and skills development. We effectively have an operational railway that we can shut down for periods of time in order to enable training. We can also induce deliberate, safe, failure in order to help teach learners and help push forward safety standards

In helping build the digital railway of tomorrow, GCRE will be crucial. We know new digital technology coming along in rail doesn’t work in isolation it generally controls something physical. We will have both the digital and physical facilities to train on at GCRE enabling learners to fully understand the real world interaction.

Our two test tracks – one for rolling stock, one for infrastructure innovation – will enable us to create failure modes and degraded operational modes to train on, which you could never do on the mainline railway. A capability that is critical in training new operational procedures on technologies like ETCS.

To achieve all this, we want to collaborate. We want to work with local educators and training providers such as Neath Port Talbot College and Coleg Y Cymoedd, who have just launched the first rail degree apprenticeship in Wales, as well as Swansea and Cardiff Universities who are new members of UKRRIN and who will be part of a new world class R&D centre we will have on site.

We will work with the best rail universities in the UK including Birmingham, Southampton, Sheffield, Huddersfield, Newcastle and Herriot Watt to name but a few, as well as our close neighbours in University of South Wales, University of Wales Trinity St David and Aberystwyth University.

In developing our facility we keen to learn from you. We want to understand what else is needed across the industry and don’t want to duplicate something that already works but add value to the facilities we have across the industry. Critical to the philosophy of GCRE is being open to all – we want to work with training providers and are very keen to hear what facilities you think we need.

As W.B. Yeats said, ‘Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire‘. To help make rail a more diverse and representative industry and enhance innovation capability we want to light that fire – light it in the minds of young people living locally to our site and in the minds of those already working in the industry.

At GCRE we’re going to be breaking new ground, not just in rail innovation but in skills development. We want to be a place for world class skills learning for the whole of the industry.

We are building a facility for the future and we want you all to be part of it!

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